Epiphone Les Paul Ultra and Elitist Les Paul ’57 Goldtop

Since it began producing mainly budget guitars in the mid ’90s, Epiphone has carved out a place in the market as a respected utilitarian brand. The company has also cleverly positioned itself as an entirely legit alternative source for genuine Les Pauls, and I count 26 variations of the Les Paul model in the current Epi catalog. What the numbers don’t tell you, however, is how successfully Epiphone has bridged the gap between $400 to $500 novice-level Les Pauls, and the out-of-reach prices of the real McCoy.
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At a $499 street price, the Korean-made Les Paul Ultra is a notch up from Epi’s beginner LPs in terms of both price and features. And, at a street price of $1,099, the Japanese-made Elitist Les Paul ’57 Goldtop is within stabbing range of some Gibson variations of the model. Between them, these two models frame a fine reminder of where the Les Paul has come from, and where it has gone. I tested both guitars through a Marshall JCM800 half-stack, a TopHat Club Royale 2x12, and a Dr. Z Z-28 1x12.

Les Paul Ultra

The newest member of the family embodies the classic Les Paul look, feel, and vibe, and in that sense offers no great surprises. Pick up the guitar, however, and you quickly realize that it also gives you something less. With its extensive internal body chambers and deeply contoured back, the Ultra is two to three pounds lighter than the average Les Paul. This in itself should make it of interest to plenty of bent-backed rockers, but the Ultra also lightens the load in other departments. The neck is 1/16" narrower at the nut than the standard Gibson width (at around 15/8" verses 111/16"), and a shade shallower at the first fret than the current production norm. This might not seem like much, but it’s surprising how easily the hand and eye detect the difference when you play the Ultra back-to-back with, for example, the Elitist. I’m a fairly big-handed player, but the more compact quarters here still feel comfortable to me, and they should also help entice guitarists who have been put off by the wide-fat dimensions of many Les Paul necks. In fact, Epiphone president Jim Rosenberg says the Ultra was developed partly in collaboration with Nancy Wilson of Heart, and the lighter weight, ribcage contour, and narrower neck all stemmed from her input. The fact that the neck is made of satin-finished maple rather than mahogany helps bring a little brightness and definition into a stew that has already been softened up some by the body chambering.

Given all these differences, neither your band nor your audience will ever think you’re playing anything other than a bona fide LP. Gold-plated hardware dresses up the quilted maple top beneath a faded cherry sunburst finish. To my eyes, the amber element of the finish lacks a certain richness, and doesn’t maximize the potential depth of the quilted-maple veneer top. Otherwise, the wood looks good, and most details have been executed very smoothly. One hitch comes with some slightly furry fret crowns in the region of the D and G strings, and towards the 12th fret and beyond. A minor fret filing could easily take care of this. Otherwise, the setup is good, and the medium-low action is very playable.

Sonically, the Ultra easily achieves its own recognizable variations of the classic Les Paul. It sounds somewhat airy and open strummed acoustically—like archetypal, semi-solid Gretsch and Guild models—and amplified, the chambered design delivers a full response, but with a midrange honk that helps this otherwise fat-sounding guitar to punch through. It’s not an overly refined voice, but it’s not without some sweetness. The pairing of an Alnico Classic humbucker at the neck with an Alnico Classic Plus at the bridge yields good tonal balance with an extra pinch of grind and sting from the bridge selection when you need it for cutting leads. The neck position produces some decently round, fluty tones that work well for blues or even jazz—although there can be a little wooliness here at times. Both pickups wail admirably through a cranked amp, making the Ultra a respectable all-around performer.

Elitist Les Paul ’57 Goldtop

The Elitist line has been with us for a few years already (formerly known as the Elite series), and it represents the upper echelon of offshore Epiphone manufacture. The Les Paul ’57 Goldtop carries U.S. electronics and pickups (a 50SR in the neck and a 60ST in the bridge), and in almost every facet (other than the headstock) is an effort to present a no-compromises Les Paul that rivals any on the sub-Custom-Shop market.

The finer points have been beautifully accounted for: the coppery gold finish on the top and the translucent burgundy of the back and neck are rich and beautifully polished, and the visible mahogany of the latter and the fretboard’s rosewood are all lovely pieces of timber. The binding, inlays, and other details are all ship shape. In short, this guitar is a solid, respectable, and very attractive Les Paul by any standards. Some fret crowns are a little furry between the 9th and 14th frets, though not as much so as on the Ultra, and a slight lack of polish throws up a hint of friction when bending in that region. Other than this—and some slight binding in the G-string’s nut slot—the guitar’s setup is difficult to fault, and the low action is a breeze to play.

The Goldtop’s neck is a comfortable compromise of Les Paul profiles through the ages. Neither ’60s slim nor ’50s chunky, it’s a fullish “C”-leaning-towards-“D”-shape that most players will have little trouble getting to grips with. Overall—particularly up against the Ultra—the Goldtop just feels together and more there. It’s twice the money, too, but even so, it provides a very accessible route to the classic goldtop Les Paul with full-sized humbuckers. Gibson’s only such offering being the Custom Shop ’57 Goldtop Reissue at a list price of $4,030.

The Elitist Goldtop really shines in the wake of its more affordable sibling. Of course, the solidbodied Goldtop is aiming at a purely conventional Les Paul sound and feel, and nails them effortlessly, but there’s also more grace and depth here. The neck pickup is more vocal, rich, and balanced, and it retains admirable definition at overdriven amp settings. The bridge pickup rewards you with that classic Les Paul bark and bite, but without the slightly nasal honk of the Ultra. And with an extra notch of amp gain, the Goldtop delivers plenty of singing sustain. In all, the Elite dishes up a heady blend of fat and sweet that makes it a Les Paul player’s Les Paul.