Even if you’re disinclined to undertake woodwork or have at it with a soldering iron, there’s still plenty of scope for modifying, customising and upgrading your Les Paul. Broadly speaking, the categories break down into cosmetic changes, electrical modifications, and hardware upgrades.
The iconic models Gibson made during the late 1950s do not enchant all Les Paul players, but for some, it has become an obsession. Original examples are in short supply given that only 1,500 or so were made, and the market value has sky-rocketed accordingly. Unsurprisingly, an industry of parts suppliers now serves the needs of Les Paul players wishing to create their own vintage replicas, and this is the mindset that drives most of the cosmetic changes.
The vintage ethos drives many of the electrical modifications, too, with circuit reconfigurations, capacitor tweaks and the ubiquitous PAF replica pickups. However, this is one area where Les Paul players need not be bound by ‘vintage correctness’. There are easy and affordable ways to customise and expand your range of tones, and players are no longer restricted to conventional control layouts or even P-90- and PAF-style pickups.
In the past, many Les Paul players shied away from hardware upgrades because they were reluctant to drill holes in a quality guitar. Nowadays, the range of bridges, tailpieces, tremolos and tuners that will slot right in place is extensive. However, you should be aware that US-made Les Pauls are fitted with hardware that conforms to imperial measurements, whereas those of Far Eastern manufacture – like Epiphones and the various Japanese lawsuit ‘replicas’ – require metric hardware.
So here are 25 of our top tips for modifying Les Pauls – or SGs, ES-335s and more besides. Some are very costly while others are cheap, and many won’t cost you a thing. Have fun and don’t do anything irreversible that you may come to regret!
1. 50s wiring
This is just about the simplest modification you can perform on your Gibson, or indeed any guitar – and it doesn’t cost a thing. They call it “50s wiring” because it’s the way Gibson hooked things up until around 1962 or so, and the only actual difference was that they connected the tone control to the output (middle) tag of the volume control rather than the input (outer) tag.
With 50s wiring, you can turn down your volume control without the sound muddying up quite so much, and the volume and tone controls also become more interactive, which may be the reason why Gibson changed it. If you decide you don’t like it, simply reverse the procedure.
Gibson’s first stop tailpiece – the ones fitted to the 50s guitars that cost the same as a decent apartment – was originally made from aluminium. Later on, this changed to zinc, which remains stock on current models. Some players claim aluminium gives extra woodiness and more treble with a wider dynamic range, while zinc fans argue that their preferred metal has more low end and sustain.
Others will tell you that they can’t hear any difference whatsoever. But even so, it’s a simple and reversible DIY modification. The Gibson version costs around £120, but alternatives from Faber, Pigtail, Gotoh, Kluson and others start from about £30. We believe aluminium sounds different, but even if you can’t hear it, at least your Lester will be a bit lighter.
3. Tone cap swaps and upgrades
It is incorrect to say that tone capacitors have no effect on the sound of a guitar when the tone controls are fully up, because there is always some treble bleed when a tone circuit is installed, so the value of the capacitor will determine the frequency at which roll-off occurs.
Some players say they can discern sonic differences between different types of capacitor of the same value. The originals were 0.022uF paper/oil types; repros are available or you can use Mallory 150s, Sprague Orange Drops or Vitamin Qs. Some like to experiment with different values too for increased or decreased treble roll-off. Our best advice is to experiment!
4. Cover removal
This is one of the earliest mods players performed on their humbucker-equipped Gibsons (Clapton’s Beano burst was a classic example). It was generally thought at the time that removing the covers made the pickups sound louder. In fact, players who removed their covers were probably just hearing more treble, because the capacitive effect of the covers caused high-frequency roll-off.
Vintage nickel silver covers were very thin and kept treble loss to a minimum, while later covers – especially thick brass ones – did the upper frequency response no favours. The principle also applies to Telecaster neck pickups, which can be de-muffled by snipping the bridging wire from the cover to the negative wire.
5. Top wrapping
In addition to providing an anchor point for the strings, the stop tailpiece ensures that the strings have a suitable break-angle over the saddles. However, when the tailpiece is screwed tight to the body, the angle might be too sharp and the strings may end up contacting the back of the bridge, which increases the chances of string breakage.
One solution is to feed the strings through the tailpiece from the pickup side and wrap them over the top of the tailpiece. Proponents – including Joe Bonamassa – claim that you get the tonal benefits of tailpiece-to-body contact coupled with more sustain and a slinkier playing feel.
6. Nut jobs
Much is made of the type of material used for nuts. Traditionalists insist on bone, some prefer the slippery attributes of high-tech materials like Graphtech, while Zakk Wylde famously prefers brass. Currently, Gibson installs a variety of nuts depending on the model, including an unusual ‘zero fret’ device that allows player to adjust string height.
Even so, a nut can only affect the tone of open strings, so the main reason for installing a new nut would be if the slots are inaccurately cut or they prove to be too deep after a re-fret. For vintage authenticity, you might consider installing a 6/6 grade nylon nut. Pre-cut nylon nuts are available, but often at a steep price. Alternatively, you can buy a sheet of 6/6 nylon and make one up.
7. Nylon saddles
Nylon isn’t generally regarded as a tone-enhancing material, but here it is again. Les Pauls have always had metal saddles, and the originals were nickel-plated brass. Gibson’s early Tune-o-Matic-equipped semi-acoustics had the same, but Gibson was fitting nylon saddles on the semis by the mid-60s. When comparing a 1960 ES-330 with a 1964 ES-330, we noticed the ’64 had a sweeter and more resonant acoustic tone, and a quick bridge swap demonstrated that the nylon saddles were responsible.
If you want a similar effect, try some nylon saddles on your Lester… or mix up metal for the wound strings with nylon for the un-wound ones, like Bonamassa.
8. Alternative pickups
Due to the way that they’re mounted, pickup-swapping was never a big thing among Les Paul players; chopping Fenders was always an easier and less scary proposition. These days things are simpler and all kinds of options are now available for humbucker- and P-90-equipped Les Pauls.
If you want an early 50s tone, there are plenty of P-90s in PAF mounts… or what about getting Gretschy with an ‘English mount’ and P-90-sized Filter’Tron or DeArmond soundalikes from TV Jones. Alternatively, Seymour Duncan’s P-Rails gives P-90, PAF and Fender-like sounds at the flick of a switch.
9. Relic plastics
Without wishing to offend anybody, getting into replica plastic parts for Les Pauls will lead you straight to the lunatic fringe of the relicing scene. Obsessives often engage in heated discussions about colour, texture and even smell. Put it this way, you will know your bendy butyrate M69 rings are right when they smell of sick and they cost you a mere £200.
Other über-expensive items may include single-ring tuner buttons and genuine Italian celluloid fingerboard inlays. Then there are knobs, switch tips and poker chips to consider. Vintage Haven, Montreux, Dead Mint Club, Monster Relic, Retro Vibe and Time Machine Collection can make your vintage replica look amazing… but it will sound exactly the same.
10. Tailpiece clamping
Traditional tailpiece studs do not grip stop tailpieces at all – the only thing holding the tailpiece in position is the pull of the strings. Often you’ll see tailpieces tilting forward, and it’s claimed that better tone can be achieved by securing the tailpiece more securely.
Tone Pros sell a range of replacement studs that comprise a stud and a separate cap that screws down onto the top of the tailpiece, while the Faber Tone Lock kits consist of replacement studs with spacer rings of various depths, so your tailpiece will be gripped and the original appearance is maintained – especially if you go for a reliced set. The spacers also allow you to set the tailpiece higher off the body for a looser feel.
11. Tuner swap
Most of the 50s Les Pauls associated with big-name players have diecast tuners – with the exception of Billy Gibbon’s Pearly Gates. Taking a Black & Decker to the headstock of a vintage LP may seem horrific nowadays, but diecast tuners require wider holes than Klusons and players were more concerned with keeping their guitars in tune than originality.
Increased mass at the headstock may have enhanced sustain, too. Nowadays players are equally likely to retrofit vintage-style tuners, but you’ll need conversion bushes to do it. You’ll get vintage looks and livelier dynamics – and, contrary to vintage lore, decent Kluson-style tuners hold their tuning just as well as diecasts.
12. No-load tone pots
A lack of clarity and treble is a common Les Paul-related complaint, but what can you do when pickup-swapping isn’t an option? Whenever a guitar is fitted with tone controls, there is always some treble bleed through the tone circuit (you can test this and see for yourself by disconnecting the tone circuit from the volume control).
Installing a ‘no-load’ tone control potentiometer ensures that at the top of the turn the pot clicks into a position that disconnects it from the circuit and eliminates treble bleed. Turn the pot down, and it will function as a normal tone control. You can buy them or make your own, and you’ll notice the biggest difference in the neck position.
13. Jimmy Page wiring
Any Les Paul with two humbuckers is actually equipped with four pickups: two pairs of single-coils with each pair wired in series. When you think about the range of tones you can get from a regular Stratocaster, it’s obvious Les Pauls have a lot of un-tapped potential.
Jimmy Page certainly thought so, and he had four push/pull switches fitted in his 1960 Les Paul. The push/pulls under the volume controls switch between regular humbucker and single-coil tones. The push/pull under the neck tone control is a series/parallel switch, and the one under the bridge tone control switches the pickups in and out of phase for Peter Green-style tones. If your pickups have vintage-style braided wires, they’ll need to be replaced with multicore wires for this mod.
14. No cut out mod
The regular Les Paul wiring scheme means that the controls are somewhat interactive. One of the oddities is the way that turning down one of the volume controls kills both pickups when the pickup selector is in the middle setting.
Some players like it because you can do that stuttering staccato trick where you hit a power chord and ‘play’ it with the switch, but it drives other players bananas. Fortunately, it’s easy to de-couple the volume controls by wiring the volume controls backwards; just follow the diagram. The downside of the mod is more noticeable treble loss when you turn down the volume controls, so treble bleed caps may be required. Try 330pF for starters.
15. No-hole Bigsby installation
Filled holes in the tops of vintage Les Pauls are the evidence of long-removed Bigsby vibratos. To some, a Les Paul with a Bigsby looks just as incongruous as a Gretsch without one. Nevertheless, we think Lesters look the nuts with a Bigsby – and you can now install Bigsbys on Les Pauls without drilling any holes at all, thanks to a company called Vibramate.
A specially-designed bracket attaches in place of the stop tailpiece to secure the front of the Bigsby unit, and the strap button screw clamps it at the back. This do-it-yourself installation can be done within minutes, but you’ll need a fresh set of strings, too.
16. Bridge replacement
Early 50s-style Les Pauls and Les Paul Juniors had wrap over tailpieces, so intonation can be compromised. Fortunately, wrap over replacement bridges with adjustable intonation are readily available. Vintage fans generally prefer ABR-1 style aluminium Tune-o-Matic bridges with brass saddles to the later all-zinc Nashville bridges.
They can be swapped, but they require thumbwheel posts with a different diameter. Browns Guitars and Faber offer the necessary conversion posts. For replacement wrap over bridges and ABR-1 replicas, try Wilkinson, Pigtail, Badass, Hipshot, Schaller, Gotoh, Tone Pros, Callaham and Gibson too.
17. Multi-position switch
Installing extra switches in Fenders was never a cause for concern, because if you changed your mind, you could always buy a new pickguard to replace the one you had perforated.
Understandably, most Les Paul owners have baulked at the idea of drilling holes in their guitars, so the options for extra pickup configurations have largely been confined to push/pull and push/push switches. So the recent introduction of a six-way toggle switch that fits in place of the regular three-way is an exciting development.
Called the Free-Way Switch, it provides Lester players with countless options. Jimmy Page had one installed in the Les Paul Custom he used for the Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert, and they’re manufactured here in the UK.
18. Adding vibrato
Key to the initial success of Paul Reed Smith has to be his hybridisation of the Les Paul and the Stratocaster, combining traditional Les Paul tones and vibe with Stratocaster ergonomics and a vintage-style trem that actually stayed in tune. The timing was perfect for a generation grown weary of day-glo Superstrats.
There are now several types of vibrato that can be fitted to Les Pauls without any necessity to drill extra holes or make irreversible alterations. The Schaller ‘Tremolo Les Paul’ is considerably less intrusive than the Floyd Rose FRX, but the market leader seems to be the Stetsbar Stop Tail.
19. Metal jack plate upgrade
If a pickup fails or you break a string, you will be able to keep playing – but if your guitar output fails, you’ll find that a Les Paul is not an ideal choice for an ‘unplugged’ performance. Every guitar design has its weak spots and the jack plate is the Les Paul’s because the slim plastic plate is all too easy to snap.
The solution is simple: a metal replacement. This is a cheap and reversible modification but try to ensure the screw holes of the new plate will line up with the old one before you hit ‘buy it now’. The only tools required are a crosshead screwdriver and something to tighten up the jack nut. If you want to keep the original look, simply install the plastic plate on top of the metal one.
20. Magnet swap
Various types of magnets are used in pickups, and they all sound different. The most common magnetic alloy is alnico, and P-90s and humbucker pickups usually have alnico II, III, IV or V. Powerful ceramic magnets are also popular with rock players who prefer high output with plenty of brightness.
If you want softer vintage tones, extra brightness or higher output and more aggression, it’s cheaper to swap magnets than swap pickups. Humbuckers have one magnet and P-90s have two, so remove the cover (if necessary), loosen the backplate and slide them out.
21. Setting the pickup height
Humbuckers have screws at both ends to allow you to adjust the height of the pickups. Similarly, soapbar P-90s have two small screws passing through the covers that do the same job. The proximity of pickup coils to the strings has a massive effect.
Setting the pickups very high can make them sound overly aggressive and midrangey (the magnetic pull may even reduce sustain). When pickups are set lower the tone can be sweeter and more open, but they can sound dull and unresponsive if set too low. To optimise your tone the only tools you need are a screwdriver and your ears. Take time to experiment before buying a new set of pickups.
22. The Peter Green mod
During his time with Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green’s Les Paul had a very distinctive sound in the middle position because the two pickups were out of phase. There are two ways you can replicate this. After removing the cover of one pickup (we’d suggest the neck), slacken off the baseplate, slide out the magnet then flip it around (not over) to reverse the magnetic polarity relative to the coil.
Tighten the base plate up, refit your cover if you use one, and you’re done. Alternatively, you can flip the phase electronically by reversing the hot and cold connections. This can be hard-wired or switchable.
It is widely acknowledged that some of Gibson’s current Historic Collection models are the finest guitars they have made since the 1960s, but some owners want even more authenticity. A company called Historic Makeovers offers various ‘packages’ that include nitro refins with aniline dyes, authentic fading, relicing, neck reshaping, top re-carving and celluloid inlay replacement.
Optional extras include Brazilian rosewood boards, trussrod replacement, Royalite rebinding, neck re-setting and nylon nut replacement. Prices start from $2,015 and customers supply their own guitars. Converting early-50s Les Pauls to late-50s specs has also become popular of late – the premise being that ‘the tone’ is in the old wood.
24. PAF replicas
A desire to recreate the looks and tones of late 1950s models seems to inspire the vast majority of upgrades, and success is largely dependent on the pickups. Unfortunately, PAFs seem to be the hardest pickups to get ‘right’. Certain key ingredients are well understood, and these include plain enamel magnet wire, butyrate bobbins, maple spacers and 2.5-inch magnets.
Leaving the coils unpotted is vital, too, but the real voodoo part involves getting the tension of the winding exactly correct and knowing how much to offset the coils. There are a handful of manufacturers whose PAF replicas are pretty spot-on, but be warned that the truly authentic tone of PAFs doesn’t always conform to expectations.
25. Pot swap
The value of volume pots does have an effect on the sound of guitars. As a rule of thumb, lower-value pots equate to reduced treble (Fender use 250K pots to sweeten up their single coils). 500K was always the stock value for volume and tone controls in Gibsons, but many Les Pauls are fitted with 300K volume pots and some have 100K tone pots.
If your LP sounds too dull and dark, measure the volume pots and install 500K replacements if 300Ks are fitted. Conversely, 300K pots will help to smooth out over-bright trebles. Some players find the balance they like with a 500K pot for the neck pickup and 300K for the bridge. CTS pots cost around £5, so it’s cheap to experiment.