Tenderly, Nitrocellulose

Les Paul nitrocellulose finish blemishLes Paul nitrocellulose finish blemish

My Gibson Les Paul Studio has a gorgeously lustrous glossy nitrocellulose lacquer finish. This is a premium finish. Or so I thought! Recently I noticed that the bottom edges of the guitar body are showing some damage. My heart sank a little bit to see my treasured Les Paul disfigured like this.

OnStage guitar standIn some dark recess of my mind, a vague memory came back that the foam on some guitar stands can react with the finish on guitars.  Sigh.

I use a classic little OnStage guitar stand. I’ve used this type of stand with every guitar I have ever owned, and never had an issue.  Until now.  I guess all of my previous guitars had simple polyurethane finishes. Those are the “cheap” finishes  compared to nitrocellulose, but apparently what you give up in glowing beauty, you gain in thick-skinned toughness.

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Three Les Pauls

Three Les PaulsI’ve been playing an Epiphone 1960 Les Paul Tribute Plus for the last couple years, and loving it.  On a whim, I recently tried a couple of these unbelievably inexpensive Monoprice Route 66 guitars.  A couple weeks ago, my birthday rolled around, and I ended up purchasing a new Gibson 2013 Les Paul Studio.  The Gibson is twice the price of my Epiphone and nearly ten times the price of the Monoprice.  What are the differences?  How do they stack up?

There was a brief window of time before I returned the Route 66, where I had all three guitars on hand- my trusted Epiphone, the low cost Route 66, and my brand new Les Paul Studio.   So being the obsessive guitar nut that I am, it seemed like a good opportunity to film a comparison:

Three Les Pauls

Les Paul 1952 Ad

Ted McCarty and Les PaulThe Les Paul. 

It’s an iconic guitar- first introduced in 1952 as Gibson guitar’s response to Fenders solid body telecaster.   It was Gibson’s first solid body, and was designed by then Gibson president Ted McCarty in collaboration with the man himself, Lester William Polsfuss

As with most things, this guitar is available at all different price points and quality levels.  Today I’m taking a look at three Les Pauls, at three different price points.  First up is  this beautiful 2013 Gibson Les Paul Studio, at around $1100.  Next is this gorgeous Epiphone Les Paul 1960 Tribute Plus, at around $600.    And last is this Monoprice Route 66 imitation Les Paul, which can be had for a mere $100. 

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.  

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Birthdays with Les Paul

Gibson 2013 Les Paul Studio Vintage SunburstGibson 2013 Les Paul Studio Vintage SunburstGibson 2013 Les Paul Studio

A couple years back on my birthday, my family gave me a 2012 Epiphone 1960 Les Paul Tribute Plus.  I love that guitar – and have played it nearly every day for two years.   Aside from some cosmetic issues, the only real negative about the Tribute Plus is that it’s heavy- it’s a solid body with no weight relief.  I’ve been playing many long gigs and rehearsals with my band the Drop Daddies, and the weight really does takes its toll.

This year for my birthday, my wife again suggested I get a new guitar.  I like this tradition!!  This time, I chose a Gibson 2013 Les Paul Studio. I purchased it from Sweetwater– they had a great “last year’s model” price – under a grand, with a hard case.  And their photo gallery selection process took a lot of the gambling and guesswork out of the online purchase.  Their service was awesome, the guitar arrived exactly as pictured, and it was nicely set up (though for some reason they had put 9’s on it, so my first job was to change it to 10’s and redo the setup).

Contrasting mahogany neck and granadillio fretboardThe Les Paul Studio is a very effective compromise in features vs. price.  It’s very similar in quality and playability compared to the higher-end Gibson’s- only really lacking some cosmetic fanciness.  With Gibson Les Pauls, you’ll pay 2 or 3 times the price of the Studio before see body/neck bindings, figured top woods and elaborate inlays.

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Les Paul’s Estate Auction

Les  Paul Auction CatalogLester Polsfuss passed away at the age of 94 after a fight with pneumonia on August 13, 2009.  Nearly 3 years later, the property from the estate of Les Paul went up for auction in Beverly Hills, CA. 

The auction company put together a beautiful 400 page book listing the items of the estate.   In case they end up taking down the book, I have saved the PDF here (68MB) for posterity.

The estate items range from the awesome, to the slightly disturbing, to the nostalgic and the just plain silly. Let’s take those in order:

  • awesome: tons of guitars of all types, prototypes, design drawings and notes, amps, oscilloscopes and test equipment, electronics (pots, tubes, caps, transformers, etc), mixing desks and early multitrack tape recorders, and even some  hand-cut wood acoustic wall panels
  • slightly disturbing: his social security and union cards, Chase credit card, drivers license, passport, Christmas cards, and signed checks.  Oh, and a white terry cloth bath robe.
  • nostalgic: photos, awards, scripts and letters, the bronzed army boots that Les was wearing when he met Mary Ford, and his gloves and glasses.  Ok, also slightly disturbing!
  • just silly: $400 of used picks, a New York state license plate reading Les Paul, a signed vegetarian cook book from Linda McCartney.  Lots and lots of turtleneck shirts.   Apparently the license plate sold for $10,000!
  • I don’t know where this fits- but a  top-hat given to Les Paul but Slash (Valued at $6000-$8000! Hah!)

Man, did Les Paul have an amazing guitar collection!

Fender 1951 No-CasterIn addition to the gorgeous specimens from Gibson and Epiphone that you would expect, you’ll also find lot 722- a 1951 Fender No-Caster signed by Leo Fender (valued at $40,000-$60,000).   It actually sold for $180,000 (!) as documented in this handheld video from the auction floor.  That’s some kind of crazy, right there.

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A Little Love for the Les Paul Tribute Plus

Epiphone Les Paul Tribute PlusAfter nearly a year, I’m still loving my Epiphone Les Paul 1960 Tribute Plus.  I‘ve played a number of gigs with it and it has proven itself absolutely reliable and roadworthy.  It has really excelled in every situation – loud indoor gigs, scorchin hot outdoor summer gigs, and of course my everyday practice, both unplugged and amplified.

This model seems to be a diamond in the rough at Epiphone- a truly great collection of features, including the awesome Gibson ‘57 Classic pickups, for a very competitive price.  

140 Years. Epiphone Les Paul 1960 Tribute PlusI’ve often wondered why I haven’t seen Epiphone really promoting this model as much as it deserves.   Well today, I noticed that it’s currently featured on the front page of Epiphone’s website, as part of their 140 years (1873-2013) anniversary.  There’s a nice write up with a few choice quotes from Les Paul, and some gorgeous pictures. 

Maybe they’ve finally decided to seriously promote this gem of a guitar!

Grover Locking Tuners

Locking Romomatic 106 SeriesMy Epiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus came with Grover locking Rotomatic tuners.    These tuners work phenomenally well. They stay perfectly in tune no matter how much I bend and beat on the strings- and adjustments are smooth and accurate.

These Rotomatics are different from typical locking tuners, like the Sperzel’s or Grover’s own Roto-Grips, where you lock and unlock the string using a thumbscrew around back.

On the Rotomatics, you just insert the string, and give it a wind, and an inner-cam rotates, locking the string into place under the string’s own tension.   I always feel a little uncertain when changing strings on these because the process is a bit different from other tuners.  Here are the instructions from Grover:

Locking Grovers Method1. Turn tip of string post until it clicks into place. This aligns string post holes.
2. Note string hole is off center. Turn knob to rotate post until string hole is positioned away from knob. Thread string up through bottom of hole and pull firmly. See drawing.
3. Turn to begin tuning. At first, only inner “Locking Cam” is turning, securely locking the string. Once the string is locked, outer post will turn.
4. Bring string to pitch.

Sketch Me Up- Melodies

Sketchup Tutorial- Vegas Project ViewDead air.  Not good!   As I was nearing completion of my epically long video for part 2 in my guitar pedal building series, one of the big items left on my to-do list was to find some appropriate thematic music for the section interludes.  Each of the 5 tutorial sections has a table of contents image that sits on the screen for about 16 seconds.   At that point in the project, each of these brief interludes was dead-silent. 

I had this vague idea that I would compose some short piece of music, and then make five increasingly complex variations to play for each of the five increasingly advanced sections of the tutorial.   16 seconds is not very long- not long enough for a big composition, but maybe long enough for a short melody.  This idea lurked in the back of my mind for a few weeks.   A couple of aborted attempts just didn’t seem to fit the tone of the video- too perky, too funky, etc.

Inspiration arrived, as it sometimes does, with a new piece of gear.  So with brand new Les Paul in hand, and Jamman Delay looper and Vox Ice 9 under foot, I recorded the following series of melodies.  Each loop starts with a copy of a previous variation, and adds a little something.

I’m particularly fond of that last clip, even though it ended up on the cutting room floor.  It’s got this crazy riff in it – which may be just a little too complex. Smile

New Les Paul Setup

Inspector 22The factory setup on my new Epiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus definitely needs some work.  Fortunately, it’s not quite as bad as my Riviera’s original factory setup.  Thank you inspector #22 in the USA 🙂

For these measurements, I’m using a capo set of feeler gauges like this set from Grizzly.

Factory Setup Here’s what it looked like, right out of the box:

  • the open action at the 17th fret was .101” on the high E and .083” on the low E.
  • the nut seems to be cut just about right. With a capo on the 3rd fret and measuring at the 1st fret, it’s about .002” on the high E and .006” on the low E.   Or measured open at the first fret, it’s .015” on the high E and .028” on the low E
  • the truss rod was was .011” at the 7th fret, with capo on 1st and finger on 22nd.
  • the intonation was completely whacked.
  • The pickup heights were carelessly set. The neck pickup was angled to be too high close to the strings on the low side and too low on the high side, resulting in a boomy unbalanced sound.
  • The pickup pole pieces were haphazardly adjusted.

So how does Gibson set up its Les Pauls at the factory?  In a post to the Gibson Talk forums, Davomite, the final inspector at Gibson Memphis posted the following factory setup notes (I added the purple decimal inch values in parentheses):

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A Worthy Tribute

Epiphone Les Paul Tribute PlusEpiphone Les Paul Tribute PlusEpiphone Les Paul Tribute PlusEpiphone Les Paul Tribute PlusEpiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus

My new Epi Les Paul Tribute Plus arrived yesterday for my birthday, and it’s a beauty!  These things are hard to find- none of the local stores have inventory, and every online retailer is backordered.  I managed to get Guitar Center’s last one in the country(!) – from the store in Tonawanda, New York.  The store manager there was great- sent me some pics, played it for me to confirm it was all good, gave me a great July 4th discount, and shipped it over for free.   Thanks Chip!

Cosmetically, it’s really nice.  Clean, well-defined flamed maple top and cream bindings.  The cherryburst finish looks near-perfect- with rich warm coloring- not the bright overexposed yellow in the pictures at Guitar Center’s website.  The Grover locking tuners feel fantastically smooth, and the switch, knobs and jack all seem good.  And after some quick adjustments, it plays pretty well (but still needs some fine tuning).

Push/Pull for Series/ParallelThe ’57 Classic pickups sound really dynamic, rich and beautiful – they’re warm when played gently, and crank when spanked. Love em.  There’s quite a range of sounds with the push/pull series/parallel switching on the tone knobs.  When a tone knob is pulled, the humbucker’s two coils are wired in parallel giving a lighter, brighter, thinner sound, somewhat reminiscent of a single coil (though different).    It’s completely different from the ultra-thick and heavy series-humbucker sound (knob pushed in).  This is a really versatile setup: a total of 8 different sounds using the 3 switches, not to mention the variations you can get by adjusting the volume knobs in the middle switch position.

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Les’ Sustain for Days

Gibson Les Paul TraditionalA couple months ago, I had an unexpected revelation.  An eye-opening, earth-shaking, revolutionary enlightenment.   Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating and obsessing, but it was an honest-to-goodness WTF!

I was at a local music shop (ok, I admit it was Best Buy), and out of curiosity, I picked up an absurdly expensive Gibson Les Paul Traditional from the wall-o-guitars, plugged it into a Vox Night Train, and gave it a spin.  I’ve never really given the Les Paul guitars much attention.  Despite their iconic status and near ubiquity, I’ve always thought the Les Paul was just too heavy to consider. But…

I was shocked! This guitar had so much sustain, it felt like there must be an active sustainer circuit in there.  But no- just passive ‘57 Classic humbuckers, a Nashville Tune-o-matic, and a whole bunch of mahogany and maple.  I was stunned. I always thought my G&L ASAT III with its Saddle-Lock bridge and my Vox SSC-55 with its MaxConnect bridge both had reasonably good sustain, but this was in a whole ‘nother league.   It actually felt like a different breed of instrument, one that may even require a different playing style to accommodate and leverage such an impressive sustain.  And those 57 Classics sounded fantastic!

So, ok, I walked out of there telling Chunling “Wow- that was mind-blowing.  But $2400, forget about it!!”  I convinced myself to let it go, and stopped thinking about it. Until…

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