In one corner, retailing at $832 (and streeting for $499) is the Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plus Top in a beautiful Heritage Cherry Sunburst. In the opposite corner, retailing at $7,974 (with a $5,199 street price) is the 1959 Les Paul Standard Vintage Original Spec from the Gibson Custom Shop’s Historic Collection. Both instruments sport all the accoutrements that add up to a Paul, including two humbuckers with separate volume and tone controls, 3-way toggles, and single-ply cream binding. The Epiphone features bright, shiny chrome hardware, and the Gibson comes with slightly aged nickel. Both instruments have mahogany bodies, but the Epiphone's is a multi-piece affair whereas the Gibson rolls with a one-piece, quarter-sawn body. (To get a solid mahogany body that is relatively lightweight requires a very old tree from a high-altitude. Gibson works closely with the Rainforest Alliance and the Smartwood Foundation to ensure that they’re working with governments dedicated to sustainable foresting methods.) Aside from the Epi headstock, the other obvious difference between the two is the finish. The Epiphone LP has a heavy gloss finish that is buffed out to a mirror-like shine, giving a glow to its flawless cherry sunburst that would make Ace Frehley proud. The Custom Shop Gibson has what they call their Iced Tea finish—a cool, smoky take on a tobacco sunburst. Rather than a heavy dose of clear coat, however, the Gibson is enveloped in a light nitrocellulose lacquer, which imparts a more muted, vintage vibe that is just plain delicious.
Internally, the Gibson is distinguished by the presence of “bumblebee” capacitors between the volume and tone pots—the same capacitors that appeared on the original ’59 models. The control cavity is shielded on the Epi, not so on the Gibson.
From a playability standpoint, the two guitars are very similar. They both have medium frets that are neat, clean, and well seated. The Gibson features a fatter neck carve than the Epi, but both guitars are comfy to play—just different. What’s not so comfy, however, are the period-correct, but really dangerous metal indicators on the Gibson’s potentiometers. These sharp metal nubs (commonly called “blood testers”) attach to the posts of all four pots and make it easy to see where the knobs are set—that is, until the knobs are obscured by the player’s hemorrhaging.
Plugging these two Pauls into a blackface Fender Super Reverb provided a lot of insight into what those extra thousands get you. The Epi has plenty of zing and top end, and the Gibson sounds slightly thicker with a rounder treble response. The Gibson definitely delivers a deeper and more detailed midrange, as the Epiphone’s mids are tubbier and duller by comparison. The Epi is more at home pushing the Super into overdrive, where its moderately higher output produces more growl and bite. However, the Gibson still outshines her little sister at this amp setting, exhibiting a much sweeter high end and tons more string-to-string detail. The Epiphone sounds really good, but the Gibson is absolutely inspiring.
It’s tough to say exactly what accounts for these sonic differences, but here are some solid theories. First, the pickups. The Gibson’s BurstBuckers sound great, with a richness and vibe that stock Epiphone pickups can’t hang with. Next, the Gibson’s thicker neck certainly contributes to the tone. Finish is another factor, and the open, airy tone of the Gibson benefits from its relative lack of top coat compared to the Epiphone.
So how did the affordable Epi fare after duking it out with a Custom Shop Les Paul? Well, it’s a TKO for the Gibson, but the Epi certainly isn’t bloodied or viciously beaten. The Epi looks great, plays great, and just needs hipper electronics to be a world-class ass kicker. In fact, installing a set of vintage-correct aftermarket pickups into the Epiphone might get you 90 percent of the way to the Gibson’s tone.
We all know, however, that there’s a certain magic to top-notch wood and finish that is impossible to fully capture with anything less, and the Gibson definitely possesses fabulous woods and an amazing finish. If you can afford it, you’ve got to get the Gibson—it’s that good. If you can’t afford it, don’t despair. The Epi is an excellent alternative that you wouldn’t be afraid to leave unattended on the bandstand.