For a company many perceive as traditional, Gibson sure had a lot of forward-thinking folks over the years. First of those might be Les Paul himself, whose name sits on the headstock of one of the most iconic guitars of all time. Funny to think that Les wasn’t a stodgy traditionalist, but a constant tinkerer and inventor. Over the last 60+ years, the Les Paul guitar has been available in more or less the same configuration that it was in the beginning. This article isn’t about the sweet sunbursts or the classy Customs though. This article lists those wild cards, the experimental models, the concept cars of the Les Paul world. You might try to tuck these pieces of guitar oddities into some faraway closet, but here there is no denial of their existence, like ’em or not.
10. Les Paul Artisan
From way back in 1977, when punk music started taking hold, and Black Sabbath came out with their first Greatest Hits album, comes the Les Paul Artisan. From Gibson’s Les Paul series (catchy name, huh?), came this ornate model that was one of their most expensive at the time. Generally found with 3 pickups, the ornate banjo-like inlays and gold hardware were more classy looking than the Customs at the time. These were generally heavy guitars, and the lightest I have played was still over 10lbs. Usually, they are found with 3 pickups, although several with two pickups and later on, fine tuning tailpieces were released. Tops were always transparent, and you could see how well (or how badly) the tops were matched. Sound-wise, they were not that much different than other mid-70s LPs.
9. Les Paul Dark Fire
Released in the early 2000s, this is truly the concept car of its day. With features such as Robot tuning, a P90/Humbucker/piezo pickup combo and innovative switching system allowed over 20 pickup combinations in a variety of stored tunings. It also might be responsible for the red-over-black dye scheme that is still popular today. This guitar came with a digital Firewire interface box that allowed recording straight into a handful of recording programs that shipped with the guitar. The interface box, called (ironically?) called RIP for Robot Interface Pack also charged the batteries in the guitar. While not much of the Dark Fire trickled down to many electrics since (other than the derisive Robot tuners), one can’t deny the carbon fiber-on-red look certainly was striking, and did look like the future back then. I have played one of these, and all of the ‘upgrades’ aside, it was a great playing Les Paul.
8. Dusk Tiger
This one snuck in here because it isn’t technically listed as a Les Paul model, but it was interesting enough to include. The LP-shaped Tiger doesn’t look like it is from around here. It came after the Dark Fire (above) and had some other innovations that were unique. It included the Robot tuners and stored tunings like the Dark Fire, but also had an editable EQ for the pickups. You would connect your guitar to the computer of choice, and store some pretty advanced multiband EQ tweaks in the guitar itself. Will this technology trickle down to other instruments? So far, not so much in the guitar world, but it is an intriguing idea. I tried this guitar too, as one of my students owned it. How did it sound? Well, not getting into the EQ-tweaking or anything like that, it sounded like a Les Paul.
7. Les Paul Custom Lite
The Les Paul Lite was introduced in 1987 as a lighter alternative to the heavy Les Paul Customs of the time. The body is about half as thick (front to back) as a regular Custom, with some contouring on the back edge. These were great guitars at the time, with the only setback being some degree of neck dive from the lighter body with the bigger Custom headstock. They sounded more like a brighter SG, which is not a bad thing. The ebony fingerboard and higher output pickups put this squarely in hard rock territory, and is a great guitar that can be found at good prices today. Gibson would try the ‘Lite’ thing on Standards and Studios later, but the original is the one for me.
6. Les Paul Bass
Far removed from the sweeter-looking Les Paul Basses of recent years, the idea was introduced in 1969 to complement the Les Paul Recording guitars. It contained 2 low impedance pickups (like the guitar) and required an amp that could take low impedance signals. If you didn’t use the special amp, then you needed a special transformer for normal amps. Combine this, ahem, feature, with the fact that it weighed 2 metric tons, you can see why the idea didn’t take off. Les Paul was good at a lot of things, but being in touch with current trends was never on the top of his list. This bass soldiered on for a few years and was then redesigned. The example I have played sounded like a warm, wooly, P-bass. I don’t know if that was the way it was supposed to sound or if something was wrong.
5. SmartWood Exotic Les Pauls
The SmartWood Exotic Series were essentially Les Paul Studios with exotic wood tops and fingerboards. Certified woods like curupay, peroba, banara, ambay guasu, taperyva guasu and chancharana were used for the tops, each with a curupay fingerboard. In the late 90’s, there was a big push towards sustainable species, and these interesting-looking exotic tops didn’t hide their color behind dye and thick paint. While the look resembled 1970’s wood furniture, it didn’t change the sound much, as they still sounded like Les Pauls. The exotic woods were just used as tops, and not the body or the neck, which was still mahogany. The idea trickled down to other series of SmartWood guitars since then. We are more likely to see more instruments made out of other species of woods as the traditional wood’s trees are cut down.
4. Les Paul Signature
While the name has been usurped for a more traditional Les Paul model in our times, the name first was used on guitars in 1973. Designed by Les himself, it resembled a 335 more than a traditional solidbody. True, the semi-hollow idea had been in use for 20 years by Gibson, but this guitar was pure Les. It had low impedance pickups for a clean and
clear sound, but also had a normal instrument jack for connection to traditional amps. These guitars didn’t really take off at all, since most players were not after very clean sounds at the time. There was a bass model available at the same time, too, with similar pickups.
3. Les Paul Recording
Another one from Les Paul’s experiments in the early 1970’s, the Recording model also contains strange low impedance pickups for the cleanest sound possible. It was a heavy guitar for use in the studio sitting down, and could plug directly into the board. The pickups ‘heard’ a more hi-fi sound, and that was directly opposite of what was popular at the time. Les loved it, of course, as it was his ideal sound (on one of his favorite models), but it was a far cry from Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, or Jeff Beck. To teens listening to contemporary radio at the time, Les Paul was who your older aunt listened to. The Recording model (highly modded) remained one of Les Paul’s favorite guitars despite the change in contemporary music trends. The one I tried was so clean and clear as to be unforgiving to those with bad technique. It also weighed about 12lbs.
2. GR Les Paul
The GR Les Paul was specifically designed to interface with Roland Guitar Synthesizers of the mid 1980’s. Those extra knobs control the volume and filter of the synth. The hex pickup is between the bridge and the bridge pickup. What you don’t see is a port for the 24-pin cable to connect it to the GR-700 synth of the time. So, you had to have what looked like an old school printer cable carrying the signal to the synth and splitting off to the amp. The most popular users of the GR Les Paul were prog-rock guitarists Steve Howe and Steve Hackett, who used them in their decidedly non-prog and very 80’s sounding band GTR. Other than that, it was a typical Les Paul with binding and dot inlays. Not many were sold, as the market for expensive guitar synths was small, and the market for an expensive guitar to use a synth with was even smaller.
1. Les Paul Artist
This was an interesting variation on a Les Paul Custom, with gold hardware, ebony fretboard, and fine-tuning tailpiece. What made it unique was the special electronics designed by synth pioneers Moog Music. They didn’t design a synth in there, but those 3 switches turn on a compressor, expander (sort of a reverse compressor), and treble boost. The circuit board was under a large plate in the back along with the battery to power it all. You had a master volume and active treble and bass controls. These did get sounds normal LPs couldn’t although the music of the late 70’s and early 80’s (when these came out) didn’t really take advantage of them. I don’t know of any famous guitarists that used the Les Paul Artist, but Steve Howe used an ES Artist (sort of a non-F-hole 335 with the same electronics) in ASIA.
What is your favorite Les Paul model? Who are some of your favorite Les Paul players?