The Ultimate Guide To Vintage Les Paul Tone
We find out precisely what makes golden-era Les Pauls tick and explain how you too can taste the tone fantastic without breaking the bank.
In last month’s in-depth look at the 1960 Les Paul Standard formerly owned by Doug Lock and Luther Grosvenor, we made the bold claim that anyone can enjoy something unnervingly close to vintage Les Paul tone by combining the right pickups, hardware and electronics with a suitable body.
We also promised to expand on the theme and that’s precisely what follows across the next 10 pages. In short, armed with an original 1954 Goldtop, a Gibson Custom Collector’s Choice #26 Whitford Burst and our work-in-progress Greco Goldtop conversion (which you can read more about on p111), we’ve compiled a step-by-step guide to achieving vintage Les Paul tone without having to sell your house in the process.
If you are shooting for 1950s Les Paul tone, we think that success is more likely if you consider things as a whole rather than obsess over specific details. The electric guitar is a ‘system’ and, as with all systems, individual components interact. Identifying the key components and gaining insight into how they work together is essential. Read on for an analysis of what we consider to be the key components, the way they effect tone and what your options are.
A significant proportion of vintage Les Pauls were retrofitted with Grover or Schaller machineheads at some point – many have since been converted back to Klusons. The balance of the guitar changes with heavier tuners and you may notice changes in transient attack, but it’s hardly a make or break issue. The same can be said for nylon nuts and if you do notice sonic differences compared to bone or other materials, you’ll only hear them when you play open strings.
Consequently, attention focuses on bridges and tailpieces and we conduct our primary listening tests with the guitars unplugged. We’ve always found vintage Gibsons a bit softer in the treble and woodier in the mids than even the best reissues. With the electrics eliminated, these differences can only be attributed to the wood, the bridges and tailpieces or a combination of both.
We test the hypothesis by swapping the original wrapover tailpiece and studs from the 1954 Goldtop onto our Greco and putting the Greco’s Faber aluminium tailpiece onto the Gibson. The strings on both guitars are identical sets of Ernie Ball Pure Nickel 0.010s.
The results are clear, with the Greco now sounding like a vintage Gibson and the Gibson taking on the snap, brightness and chime of the Greco. Many would regard the sonic characteristics of the Faber tailpiece as superior, but it’s less ‘vintage’ and vocal sounding, and it doesn’t sustain quite so well.
Moving over to the Collector’s Choice LP, we swap the bridge for an ABR-1 taken from a 1961 ES-330. The changes are less dramatic, but still clearly audible. We hear a softening of the treble, which leads to a more vocal midrange and a compressed warmth. The Collector’s Choice model’s owner declares that the vintage ABR-1 has “taken the newness off the guitar”, and promptly begins scouring the net for vintage bridges.
Since both wrapover bridges are aluminium, we must conclude that the grade of aluminium being used by Faber differs from the aluminium Gibson was using during the 1950s. Research suggests vintage ABR-1 bridges were cast from an alloy called zamak – containing zinc, aluminium, magnesium, and copper – and there are eight grades of zamak. Collector’s choice bridges are describes as ‘zinc’, but again we suspect the composition may be slightly different.
Vintage PAFs and P-90s (and accurate replicas) tend to be very microphonic so many of the guitar’s unplugged tonal characteristics make it to the amp, and they have treble to spare. Therefore, hardware is an important factor in the Les Paul tone equation, and your options are to buy vintage parts or find replacements that sound like vintage ones. This area could benefit from more research.
Saying that vintage Les Paul controls ‘just work’ would be a touch simplistic, so let’s be specific. Assuming they’re functioning correctly, vintage Les Pauls have controls you can use to achieve a huge range of tones without ever touching your amp or a pedal. Check out archive footage of Paul Kossoff or any number of Joe Bonamassa instructional videos and you’ll get the idea.
Bonamassa explicitly states, “What people don’t realise about old Gibsons is a significant part of the sound is not in the pickups, but in the pots”. He attributes a “nice clean, clear open sound” to the smooth taper of vintage pots working with lower output pickups and military-grade wire and capacitors.
You can buy vintage 500k Centralab pots on Reverb and so forth, but they tend to be highly priced and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be working properly. Most suppliers stock 500k replacement pots for Gibsons, but what’s the best option if you want to get close to vintage spec without buying vintage?
To find out, we’re measuring a selection of popular replacement potentiometers. This involves taking the actual value of the potentiometers and then plotting their tapers on graph paper based on resistance readings taken at 10 intervals corresponding to the markings on a Les Paul control knob.
For comparison purposes, readings are taken from all four potentiometers in the 1954 Goldtop we’ve borrowed for this feature. The actual resistance values vary from a low of 462k to a high of 600k with an average of 537.5k. All four vintage pots also read between 1k and 2k with the control knobs set to one and they are all logarithmic rather than linear.
We average out the readings from the four vintage pots and draw a response curve (see p66). A graph is also drawn for each of the replacement potentiometers, so they can be individually placed over the vintage potentiometer graph to provide a visual indication of how closely the resistance readings and tapers match.
CTS Audio This is the most commonly used replacement potentiometer and it’s fitted in many high-end guitars. The actual resistance value is 508k and resistance remains significantly lower until five, whereupon it conforms to the vintage curve until three before drifting lower. If you’re looking for vintage response, this potentiometer is possibly the least authentic choice.
Alpha 500k Considering it’s a cheaper option, the Alpha pot does a lot better than the CTS Audio. It still shows some resistance at one and although resistance drifts very slightly above and below the vintage average, the taper shape actually conforms closely to the vintage taper. The actual resistance is 488k, which is higher than the lowest vintage pot reading, and it has a nice smooth feel.
CTS Vintage Taper This pot certainly gets closer to the vintage average than the regular CTS Audio pot and it’s very close from seven to eight and one to four. But the taper is very different between four and seven, where the CTS is noticeably higher in resistance, and between eight and 10 where it is lower. Pot resistance is 488k.
Bourns Long Shaft With an actual value of 540k, this one starts well, but things quickly veer off course. Between 10 and nine, resistance hardly changes, then the taper follows the vintage line, albeit at a higher resistance, until it joins the curve at five and remains quite close from five to one. With its long shaft, this pot might suit Les Pauls with thicker tops and some will like the loose feel.
Bourns Short Shaft This is fairly similar to the long shaft version but there is even less of a resistance change between 10 and nine. From there the resistance decrease is very linear and consistently higher than vintage average until the lines meet up at five and follow closely to one.
Bare Knuckle CTS 550K These pots have long shafts and a plus or minus 10 per cent tolerance, which makes them bang on for the vintage range we measured. Testing two of these, we get measurements of 509k and 533k. Comparing the graphs, the 509k pot moves slightly above and below the vintage curve between five and eight, but otherwise stays close. The 533k pot is an almost perfect match for our vintage average from one to 10.
The clear winner is the 533k Bare Knuckle with the Alpha a very close runner up. If you order a set of Bare Knuckle pots, we’d suggest measuring across the outer lugs to determine the actual resistance values. If you want a bit more brightness, use the higher value pots as volume controls and use the others for tone.
Alpha pots cost around £2 each, so they’re a bit of a bargain compared to the £9.95 Bare Knuckles. The closed-back casings will also look more vintage correct, so long as you disguise the markings by soldering the ground wires over the top. However, the shaft is narrower than a CTS, so you may need a couple of wider washers to clamp it in place if you’re fitting Alphas in USA-made guitars.
Measuring just 10mm, the short shaft means the Alpha pots we tested should be fine in SGs, Juniors, Vs and so forth, but cannot be installed in some Les Paul-type guitars. Long shaft versions are available from Axesrus, but we can’t vouch for the taper at the time of writing.
If you like to use your guitar controls for tone shaping, or think you might enjoy learning to do so, a pot change is recommended. If you have no intention of using your controls below the 10 setting, don’t bother changing a thing.
Vintage Les Paul enthusiasts can get pretty obsessive about tone capacitors and serious money changes hands for original – and sometimes not so original – Bumble Bees. These were the Sprague-manufactured capacitors Gibson used during the late 50s.
However not all Bumble Bees were created equal, and although it’s widely assumed they were paper/oil types, the manufacturing process changed and many are more modern-style Mylar capacitors. You can tell the difference because the oil-filled versions have a filler cap protruding from one end with the leadout wire soldered into it. At the other end, the wire goes straight into the capacitor body.
We have no intention of getting into the oil versus Mylar debate, but it is worth pointing out that many of the ‘holy grail’ Bursts left the factory with Mylar capacitors and that’s the sound you can hear on countless classic records. The Astron capacitors that Gibson started using in 1960 are lesser known, but we recently encountered them in the early 1960 Duggie Lock Burst.
Research suggests these are metal foil capacitors in ceramic tubes. While Burst obsessives are busy chasing bees, you can find old Astrons like the ones in the 1960 LP for less than £10. Sometimes they were branded Lafayette and those tend to be even cheaper.
It’s worth noting that most old capacitors will have drifted far away from their stated value. It’s safe to assume this is true of many of the caps that have resided undisturbed in vintage Les Pauls for decades, so if a cap no longer reads close to vintage spec 0.022uF, it may not matter. In fact, it could be beneficial.
While measuring pots is a valid exercise, capacitor choice is more subjective. Instead we gather a small selection of vintage and NOS capacitors and conduct some blind tests. The capacitors are wired to a rotary switch and hooked up to our Collector’s Choice model fitted with Monty’s PAF replicas. During testing they are identified only by number and we make notes during the testing process.
If the cap fits
Sprague Hyrel ‘Vitamin Q’ This NOS cap is supposedly a paper/oil type and since it’s only rated at 200 volts, it’s relatively small. We find moderate roll off quite clear and vocal with a wah-like narrow ‘Q’ and a hint of vintage quackiness. Things start getting a bit muffled around 4.5 and with the tone control rolled fully back, the lows get woofy. This is a nice-sounding capacitor that measures bang on 0.022uF, but the tone control’s usable range becomes limited with this in circuit.
Astron/Lafayette No 1 The multimeter reveals that this cap has drifted from the stated 0.03uF up to 0.084uF. Even so, the guitar retains brightness and with the tone rolled back to half way, note definition is better than the Hyrel. However, the dynamics feel a bit compressed and with a slight loss of sparkle combined with some graininess in the upper mids, we find that this capacitor obliges you to play harder to sound good.
Astron/Lafayette No 2 This has drifted even more and reads 0.23uF. Even so, the guitar sounds clear and feels like it has a slightly higher output. There is a quacky wah quality, but the Q is less pronounced than with the Hyrel. We also find the wah effect changes with playing dynamics – becoming more apparent as you play harder. With the tone fully up the guitar is chimey and smooth, and when rolled back low string definition is retained because the very lowest frequencies are attenuated along with the treble.
Sprague Bumble Bee This was advertised as an NOS Bumble Bee and it appears to be a paper/oil type. As expected, the value has drifted upwards – to 0.036uF in this case. Again, the guitar sounds loud with this cap and there’s a nice sparkle in the treble. The downside is a push in the low mids that adds a touch of muddiness, but it’s a decent sounding capacitor that retains detail.
Russian K40n Paper/Oil These chubby red caps have been long time TGM favourites and it doesn’t disappoint here. Reading 0.023uF, words like plummy, rounded, smoky and balanced spring to mind. With the tone on 10 there’s sparkle aplenty, and when you roll back you get a sax-like honk that continues to a smooth jazziness. It may not the best choice if you like your Lesters aggressive, but it’s a great cap if you prefer a touch of refinement.
It’s hard to say which capacitor produces the most authentically vintage results – or indeed if that’s the most desirable and usable outcome anyway. The differences don’t really jump out at you and we find it takes a period of careful listening and experimentation to zone in on what each capacitor does.
Even so, we do have a favourite: the 0.23uF Astron/Lafayette – the capacitor that is furthest away from vintage spec. Loaded in the Collector’s Choice with a full set of Alpha pots, the volume and tone controls become wildly interactive and when the volume is around five, rolling back the tone introduces a mid-scoop that actually enhances clarity. The centre frequency even appears to change slightly depending on the volume and tone settings. So, the tone acts as both a treble roll-off and a rudimentary parametric equalizer – depending on how the controls are set.
If you listen carefully you can hear this with regular 500k pots and 0.022uF caps, but we suspect an upwards drift in actual cap value might accentuate the effect.
This is the big one, and if you get the right type of pickups in your Les Paul it can have a very profound effect. At the very least your P-90 or PAF replicas will need to have suitable alnico magnets, steel parts with low carbon content, plain enamel magnet wire and no wax potting. In the case of PAF replicas, the coils will be slightly mismatched.
If you can get those bases covered, you may wish to research the tones associated with different grades of alnico and decide whether you want early-style P-90s with A3 or late 50s-style with A5. Also research the range of DC resistance readings of vintage pickups and consider how that will impact tone.
If you’re ordering from a boutique maker, you can no doubt discuss your requirements and allow the experts to guide you. For this feature we’re actually more concerned with getting the best from your pickups rather than identifying the ‘best’ pickups per se.
An old pro-audio old adage says the best microphone in the world is the one you have. What it means is that so long as a mic is of a certain standard, great results can be achieved by applying technique and ingenuity.
If the sound is too bright, you move the mic to somewhere where the sound is a little darker. If you need more treble you can do the opposite, and you can balance the low frequency content by altering the proximity of the mic to the instrument being recorded. So how does this relate to pickups?
Although the scope for adjustment is physically restricted, adjusting pickups is very much akin to placing microphones. This is particularly true with microphonic vintage-style pickups like PAFs and P-90s, because they are extremely sensitive to height settings.
There’s no point in throwing in endless sets of high-quality pickups in an aimless search for a specific sound. Unless you take the time to zone in on the optimum settings for a particular set, you may never hear the pickups at their best, or discover the full range of tones and textures they’re capable of.
The only tools needed are your ears and a screwdriver. With the pickups set low relative to the strings, you get a darker and more mellow tone but it may lack bite, aggression and output. Moving the pickup closer to the string will increase output and make the tone brighter. Lift it higher still and you’ll get more bite and aggression, but the tone can get become too edgy and shouty, plus the pickup’s magnetism may dampen string vibration and reduce sustain.
We take our time getting the bridge just right, always shooting for an even string-to-string balance from bass to treble. We follow the same procedure for the neck pickup, but it’s slightly complicated by the need to balance the neck to the bridge pickup. You may notice that low strings lose definition if the neck pickup is set too low. When both pickups are perfectly balanced, the middle setting’s voice will be noticeably distinct.
We were perfectly happy with this procedure until the Duggie Lock Burst came along and opened our eyes to other possibilities. We soon noticed the bridge pickup was set far lower than usual, but the pole screws were jacked high above the covers to compensate. The bridge sounded almost like a P-90, combining a thick midrange roar with tremendous clarity and soft treble.
Trying this approach with our own Monty’s loaded Greco LP Standard copy, we were astonished to discover how close we could get to the tone. All the action happens in the midrange and once you get the hang of balancing pickup and pole screw heights, you can shift the midrange tonal characteristic and almost re-voice a pickup to your taste.
By taking the more traditional approach to the neck pickup, you can swing it so the neck is just as bright, or even brighter than the bridge. A fantastic tonal contrast can be achieved, and the middle setting will also now have an audible phasiness with slightly hollow mids for a great third tonal option. And if you don’t want to go down that route, contrary to what some people might claim, the pole screws can still be used to even up string-to-string balance.
Attention turns to P-90s and we count ourselves lucky to have a genuine 1953 set to test in our Greco. Cutting to the chase, the Greco conversion with vintage P-90s installed sounds virtually indistinguishable from the bona fide 1954 Gibson Goldtop. This mirrors our findings when we installed a set of vintage PAFs in a Greco in the past.
The set-up procedures we discussed in relation to PAFs also apply to P-90s, however adjusting height can be tricky. Some use foam rubber for its springiness, but we prefer wood shims. There is another set-up trick you can try to alter P-90 voicing.
Years ago a prominent pickup builder explained to us how the two magnets in P-90s are arranged to repel rather than attract. Over the decades, this can actually cause the magnets to move apart, and this changes the shape of the magnetic field.
It’s the simplest mod to try with both vintage and repro pickups. Slacken off the baseplate screws very slightly until the magnets will slide with a little bit of encouragement. Try moving them a millimetre or so at a time and you may hear how the beefy midrange roar begins to take on a vintage quackiness.
You can try this on just one pickup to achieve tonal contrast, or both if you like the effect. It costs nothing and so long and you note the starting points, the magnets can be returned to their original positions.
Old or new pickups?
If you only take one thing away from reading this article, it should be that dropping genuine vintage pickups into a decent quality reissue or copy will get you closer to the actual sound of a vintage Les Paul than buying a top dollar Gibson Custom or custom-built replica instrument that comes equipped with factory-made pickups.
Prices for vintage PAFs have skyrocketed and you need to be careful because some replicas are scarily indistinguishable from real ones and sadly, there are a few dishonest sellers out there. But even if you are prepared to pay around £4,000 for a vintage set, you’d still have a grand or so’s worth of change to play with before you start getting into the price range of even the cheapest second-hand Collector’s Choice Gibsons.
At the time of writing, there were three 1950s P-90s on Reverb for between £330 and £360 each. Granted this isn’t cheap compared to even the best replicas, but as a magic bullet solution for vintage Les Paul tone, a set of vintage P-90s may end up saving you a lot of effort, time and money. You could even buy one at a time as funds allow.
Although a range of factors interact to produce vintage style Les Paul tone and controllability, our test results suggest some are more influential than others. Everything we have learned so far about vintage Les Pauls leads us to conclude that the pickups are the most important factor and the wood is possibly the least of it.
Of course the wood matters, but so long as your Les Paul has a non-chambered mahogany body with a solid maple cap, a rosewood fingerboard and a glued in mahogany neck, the fundamentals are in place. We’d probably argue that a long tenon neck joint and a fully loaded weight of somewhere between 8.2lbs and 10lbs are desirable features, too.
We’ve reached this conclusion through experimentation. Having had the opportunity to load vintage P-90s and PAFs into a couple of 80s Grecos, there’s no denying that copies can sound almost exactly like the real thing.
When vintage Gibson hardware is installed, too, the results are truly staggering. Sadly vintage hardware has become very expensive, but if you can afford a piece here or there, you will hear a difference. In the meantime, we’ll continue our investigations in the hope of finding repro hardware with authentically vintage tonal characteristics.
Let’s be clear about potentiometers. If you increase the pot’s resistance by 10k or even 100k you will get a bit of extra brightness. However, it’s not a massive change and the most crucial factor is the way they respond. We have established that modern pots with vintage accurate tapers are available and they are affordable.
Capacitor choice has an even more subtle effect and only those with keen hearing will detect a difference. It’s quick and easy to install a bunch of capacitors on a rotary switch to audition them. Just pick the ones that sound good to you. All the vintage ones will have drifted so far out of spec, it would be misleading if we told you to buy a specific type or value.
The majority of us will never be able to afford a genuine 50s Les Paul and it’s all too easy to spend our time gazing wistfully at vintage pictures, reading every article and hanging out on forums. By and large, these activities merely serve to make things worse.
Alternatively, you can get proactive about it. We hope we’ve demonstrated that not having a spare £220K in the bank doesn’t disqualify you from enjoying vintage Les Paul tone. Get creative, be prepared to compromise and you may find yourself very pleasantly surprised with the results.