The popular history of the electric guitar suggests that during the golden era of the fifties and early sixties, the factories of Fullerton and Kalamazoo were churning out lightweight, highly resonant tone machines of a quality that would never be equalled. However, by the 1970s, the pillars of American guitar manufacturing had well and truly lost their way; they weren’t making them like they used to, the wood was heavy and sub-standard and in some instances, the Japanese imports of the period were better guitars.
But the trouble with received wisdom is it’s usually a little black and white, and its advocates almost always fail to dig into the details. Firstly, the notion that all vintage American electrics of the golden era are great instruments simply isn’t true; some pre-CBS Strats are pretty damn ordinary, and not all PAF pickups sound astonishing.
Indeed, many pickup experts we’ve spoken to over the years concede that, while the finest examples truly are things of awe and wonder, some original PAFs don’t sound very good at all. The higher percentage of hand processes involved in early electric guitar manufacture inevitably introduced a greater degree of variance between one instrument off the production line and the next, and those `Friday afternoon’ guitars do exist. And as far as weight and resonance go, this writer has played a ’55 Strat that could have anchored an ocean liner, yet also owned a ’73 Tele Custom that weighed less than 7lb and rang like a grand piano.
Not all stereotypes are true then, but it’s fair to state that the Gibson Les Paul Standard is on the heavy end of the spectrum when it comes to iconic production solidbodies. It’s always been that way, too. Of a sample of 28 1958-60 instruments featured in the Les Paul obsessive’s bible The Beauty Of The ’Burst by Yasuhiko Iwanade, weights range from 8.1-9.7lbs, with an average of 8.86lbs.
While many of us have learnt to grin and bear a reasonable amount of weight, few guitarists want to play a 12lb Les Paul, and there has clearly been a consistent demand for a lighter Lester for a number of years now, as Gibson’s numerous attempts to provide one seem to corroborate.
Introduced back in 1987, the Les Paul Custom Lite shaved 5/8-inch off the body depth, while recent years have seen various weight-relief methods appearing on USA LPs, ranging from nine rather crude holes routed in the mahogany before the maple cap is attached to full-on tone chambering. Then there was the halfway house of 2012’s `modern weight relief’, with its multiple elliptical chambers.
The f-hole truth
The idea of going the whole hog and equipping a Les Paul with f-holes is nothing new either; the bling-y Les Paul Bantam Elite and Bantam Elite Plus (later renamed Florentine Standard and Florentine Plus; metal flake-finished models were re-christened the Elite Diamond Sparkle) were introduced two decades ago by the Nashville Custom Shop. Noel Gallagher’s use of a silver Diamond Sparkle model on Oasis’ Be Here Now tour was the high point for a range thats sparkle had fizzled out and been duly discontinued by 1998.
Since then, there have also been limited edition Epiphone Les Paul ES models and a variety of compact Epiphone and Gibson ES instruments, such as the ES-339, that tend to possess a little Les Paul in their sonic DNA if not in their appearance.
While both guitars here have precedents in the Gibson and Epiphone catalogues, at present the Florentine Pro is the lone semi-hollow Les Paul in the Epiphone ranks. Gibson’s Memphis factory, on the other hand, features a dozen variations on the ES-Les Paul in its 2015 line-up, including a bass – not bad for a model that debuted as recently as last year.
While Gibson USA’s Nashville-manufactured 2015 line-up provoked a remarkable furore on internet forums well before instruments even made their way into people’s hands, a couple of hundred miles south west along the I-40 down in Memphis, under the auspices of Mike Voltz, a quieter evolution continues to produce some of the most inspiring and evocative production-line semi-acoustic guitars in the world.
The 2015 model year saw Gibson Memphis ring the changes in a measured, player-friendly manner. As a result, the ES-Les Paul Black Beauty features a thickened transition between the neck and headstock for greater strength and stability, a bone nut to aid both tone and tuning, rolled neck binding for a more played-in feel straight out of the box, Orange Drop capacitors with less treble cut, old-style Grover Milk Bottle Rotomatic tuners and a Historic-spec truss rod and an f-hole engraved truss-rod cover; the latter now featuring on all non-Historic Gibson Memphis models.
The eagle-eyed among you will also notice that the medium jumbo fretwire on ES-Les Pauls now extends over the binding for a little more fretboard real estate on the outside of the first and sixth strings.
Gibson’s VOS finish treatment is considerably less divisive than the kind of throw-it-down-the-stairs ‘ageing’ that gets at least half of the guitar buying public rather het up while the other half are reaching for their credit cards. Our Black Beauty certainly looks the part, though on very close inspection the top does appear more like the effect of half an hour spent rubbing away with some steel wool rather than decades of gigging. That said, it’ll soon settle down with some playing time.
Where the Gibson ES-Les Paul employs a maple/poplar/maple laminate frame in traditional ES-335 style, then adds a mahogany centre block with most of its mass concentrated under the stress points of the bridge and neck join (see sidebar), the Epiphone Florentine is more of a hollowed-out Les Paul Standard with a chambered mahogany back glued to a maple cap with a pretty AAA flame veneer.
In practice, the two contrasting approaches have produced instruments of broadly similar weights, though the Epiphone’s poly finish has that `dipped in glass’, heavy-gloss appearance and feel that’s far removed from vintage spec.
Ironically, though, it’s the softer corners of Epiphone’s new ProBucker pickup covers that are the closest to vintage PAFs in shape; while the Memphis Historic Spec units are unpotted with mismatched coil windings, and thus closer to being period correct on the inside, for the time being, Gibson Memphis is persevering with the sharper corners and more rounded edges that characterise most generic modern humbucker covers.
We wonder how long it will take before the `right’ PAF pickup covers come trickling down from the new £5,000 and upwards Gibson Custom True Historic range to the Memphis line. On a three-pickup Les Paul, it would really make a visual difference, but enough about looks; how do these instruments sound and feel?
The Epiphone’s Slim Taper 1960s D profile gives away only 3mm in 12th-fret depth to the Gibson, but the Black Beauty’s C shape feels much more rounded and substantial and this, in combination with the nitrocellulose finish, makes for an instrument with a much more vintage-like personality in comparison to the Epiphone’s more generic feel. Given the price differential, you’d expect as much, but that’s not to say the Florentine is a bad guitar; far from it. The Epiphone is a comfortable, speedy player that will appeal to the majority of guitarists.
Compared to our reference Gibson ES-335 with Mojo Pickups PAF replicas installed, where the larger-bodied instrument is creamier ± and indeed Creamier ± sounding, the ES-Les Paul is more Page than Clapton, with more of a snarl in the highs and upper-mids. Compared directly to a solidbody Les Paul Standard, somewhat predictably, there’s less midrange thump and authority in low-register chords from the Black Beauty.
However, there’s a wonderfully vocal, expressive voice for blues soloing in any of the pickup positions, while the middle position is of course given a little more push than you’d get out of a twin-pickup Les Paul, because of the mandatory combination of Alnico II bridge and Alnico III middle pickups.
Though the Les Paul Custom has often been a popular choice for players who use loads of gain, in this incarnation we’d recommend exercising a little more restraint ± the pickups do squeal a bit with combinations of high volume, gainy drive and proximity to the amplifier, with the neck unit the most prone to microphony. It’s suited better to expressive blues and classic rock than it is to heavy metal.
With sensible levels of drive, the middle setting is lots of fun, and we probably spent more time playing with the switch in this position than we ever would with either a regular ES-335 or Les Paul. For grungy powerchord riffs and rhythms, it’s thick and gnarly without turning into mush, while higher-register lead playing has a hint of cocked wah tonality – we reckon it would make a great main voice for a guitarist in a riffy, alt-rock trio, where that extra thickness can really fill out the sound in the way the bridge pickup alone isn’t able to.
Both guitars look fantastic when strapped on, but – perhaps inevitably – stripped of the dense mahogany that makes a regular Les Paul so body-heavy, there’s some neck dive in both instances, so you’ll need to be judicious in your choice of strap.
In a straight A/B, as you might perhaps expect, the Epiphone’s additional mahogany translates into greater warmth, but the overall sounds are less sophisticated, and as ever the differences between the two instruments get more apparent as you wind up towards gig volume. The more affordable guitar sounds fine in isolation, and it’s perhaps somewhat unfair to expect it to compete sonically with a considerably more expensive instrument that will always have more of that certain something when it comes down to character and voice.
All that said, though, the Epiphone’s double vacuum wax-potted pickups are considerably more resistant to unwanted feedback and can cope with much higher levels of gain. In addition, though engaging the coil-splits brings a significant drop in level, there’s a sweet, light funkiness to the neck and middle settings, and some almost sixties, Kinks-like brattishness to the bridge when used in split-coil mode with EL84s in overdrive.
Top hat knobs aren’t the easiest to pull up with sweaty mitts in a gig environment – speed knobs would have probably been a more practical selection. Having said that, it’s to the Epiphone Florentine’s great credit that it isn’t in any way embarrassed in the company of Gibson’s Memphis Black Beauty.
Gibson Memphis ES-Les Paul Black Beauty
PRICE £2,899 (including hardcase)
DESCRIPTION Single-cutaway semi-hollow electric guitar, made in USA
BUILD Maple/poplar/maple laminate body with mahogany centre block, rounded C-profile mahogany glued-in neck, 304mm/12″ radius Richlite fingerboard with mother of pearl block inlays, bone nut and 22 medium jumbo frets
HARDWARE Gold-plated TonePros AVR-2 bridge and lightweight stopbar tailpiece, Grover Milk Bottle Rotomatic machineheads
ELECTRICS 3x MHS humbucking pickups, 3-way toggle pickup selector switch,
2x volume, 2x tone
SCALE LENGTH 628mm/24.75″
NECK WIDTH 43mm at nut, 53mm at 12th fret
NECK DEPTH 22mm at first fret, 25mm at 12th fret
STRING SPACING 36mm at nut, 53mm
FINISHES Ebony VOS lacquer only
Epiphone Les Paul Standard Florentine Pro
PRICE £459 (including hardcase)
DESCRIPTION Single-cutaway semi-hollow electric, made in Indonesia
BUILD Chambered mahogany body with maple top and AAA-grade flame maple veneer, 1960s SlimTaper D-profile mahogany glued-in neck, 304mm/12″ radius rosewood fingerboard with pearloid trapezoid inlays, synthetic nut and 22 medium jumbo frets
HARDWARE Nickel LockTone tune-o-matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece, Epiphone Deluxe
ELECTRICS Epiphone ProBucker-3 (bridge) and ProBucker-2 (neck) humbucking pickups, 3-way toggle pickup selector switch, 2x volume with pull/push coil splits, 2x tone
SCALE LENGTH 628mm/24.75″
NECK WIDTH 42mm at nut, 53mm at 12th fret
NECK DEPTH 20mm at first fret, 22mm at 12th fret
STRING SPACING 35mm at nut, 52.5mm at bridge
FINISHES Honey Burst (as reviewed), Iced Tea, Faded Cherry Burst, Trans Black, Vintage Sunburst, Wine Red