The Les Paul: More Than Just A Rocker
Gibson’s Les Paul is legendary as a rock machine. It almost single-handedly forged the sound that defines classic British blues-rock, as well as being a centerpiece in a myriad of other heavy rock styles that require fat, rich, sustainful tones and fluid playability. But the Les Paul, in all its forms past and present, is capable of doing much more than just the rock thing, as great players have proved ever since the groundbreaking solidbody hit the scene 55 years ago.
Any player who knows their guitar history is already aware that the Les Paul was pioneered, developed with the assistance of, and endorsed by the famous jazz-pop artist of the same name. Paul wanted a guitar that better served the needs of jazz guitarists, one that would offer more sustain and feedback resistance than the hollowbody archtops that were the norm at the time, and would also be more versatile sonically. Of course these qualities also suited electric players in just about every other genre, and Les Paul Goldtops in their earlier incarnations with P-90 pickups quickly wound up in the hands of a diverse range of artists, from formative blues men John Lee Hooker and Freddie King to rock’n’roller Carl Perkins. Following Paul’s lead, plenty of jazz players took them up too. Adept at producing thick, warm tones–from its neck pickup in particular–despite being a solidbodied design, the Les Paul proved a natural choice for plenty of great jazzers. More surprising, perhaps, is the ease with which it adapted to country styles.
Switch to a bridge-position Burstbucker or P-90, set your amp for clean with just a little bite, and a Les Paul will sing a distinctive, cutting breed of twang that suits plenty of genres that lie a major leap away from heavy rock indeed. Lots of Western Swing players bent a Les Paul to their advantage in the 1950s, but the model has really found a home in recent years in the alt-country, Americana and roots rock genres, where it’s ability to segue between smooth, vocal clean tones and gnarly, gritty rock crunch has helped to define this stirring breed of crossover music. Dave Boquist crafted emotive leads and evocative backing parts on a Les Paul Goldtop with humbuckers and a Bigsby vibrato in the original incarnation of seminal alt-country band Son Volt. Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers frequently churns out his band’s distinctive breed of gnarled southern country-rock on an LP, and of course Neil Young laid the groundwork for everything of the ilk on a modified early 1950s Les Paul with Bigsby.
Over on the other side of the tracks, plenty of fusion players have proved time and again how well suited the model is to their anything-goes style of playing. Robert Fripp plied his very leftfield trade on an original three-pickup Les Paul Custom during the early years of King Crimson, while Latin-jazz-rock speedster extraordinaire Al DiMeola has long been a fan of a Les Paul’s searing tone and lightning-fast neck.
Sure, a Les Paul will rock like no other guitar under the sun, and its blues chops need no introduction, but don’t hesitate to turn the classic set-neck singlecutaway solidbody to anything from jazz to country to pop… to whatever new music you’re looking to forge on it tomorrow.