The Les Paul is in many ways the elder statesman of the classic electric guitar models. It’s a more complex design than both the Stratocaster and the Telecaster, with its set neck and carved maple top. Surely a Les Paul into a Marshall stack is an archetypal guitar sound, but is that all it can do? Read on and I’ll go through some other tones you can get from a Les Paul.
The most classic sound, at least in a rock/hard rock context, is the bridge humbucker at full volume into an overdriven amp. This sounds glorious, and everyone from Paul Kossoff to Zakk Wylde have this basic tone in common, even though their respective gain and aggression levels differ quite a bit. Used like this the Les Paul has a biting and aggressive sound, but still manages to have a refined and three-dimensional quality. My impression is that this is a result of the interplay between the mahogany body and the maple cap. I used to have a bridge humbucker in my strat — a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates, no less, which is a quintessential Les Paul pickup — but it never had the multi-layered tone of my Les Paul. Pickups alone don’t seem to explain the difference.
Using the bridge pickup as described, but turning down the tone to around six-ish mellows the sound and gives a more rounded-off attack and a more vocal-like sustain. This is a great way to access the lovely, thick-as-butter tone that the Les Paul can produce without turning the gain down. If it worked for Gary Moore (it did work for Gary Moore), it can work for you.
Turning to the bassier brother of the bridge pickup — the neck pickup — you’ll find that some things stay the same, while others change. The sustain and ability to push an amp into overdrive is still there, but the tonality has changed — a lot! Gone are the screaming harmonics, and instead there’s a plump, fat, round tone that in the best cases stay clear in the top end. It may also be a bit louder than the bridge pickup.
This is a good a time as any to talk about pickup types and wiring.
Low Output Pickups
There are many ways to equip a Les Paul, but for our purposes I’m going to assume (and recommend) some classic, low output humbuckers in the P.A.F genre. These have a detailed high end, a fat but clear midrange — at least compared to single coils — and enough bass to be full-sounding. Hotter pickups tend to concentrate their output in the midrange, so they’re less suited to low gain or clean sounds. Active pickups are beyond the scope of this post.
I’m aiming for classic humbuckers that are fat but still sweet, and that are — for lack of a better word — open-sounding. This makes them versatile, and they can be used for clean sounds as well as full-on, overdriven madness!
Fifties or Modern Wiring
There are two basic ways of wiring a Les Paul – a fifties-style wiring, and a modern wiring, which supposedly sounds more, erm, modern. The difference is basically in what order the volume and tone pots are wired with respect to the output jack. This affects the tonality of both pickups, and how they interact with each other and the controls. To complicate things further the use of pots with different impedances (usually 300 kΩ or 500 kΩ) will affect the amount of top end in your guitar’s signal. Again, for our purposes you’d want fifties wiring with good quality 500 kΩ pots. This gives us the clearest sound, and the least bass. You can always remove treble later, if need be.
Both Pickups Together
Using both pickups together connects them in parallel, and this gives a more sparkly top end, although it’s still fat-sounding. A lot of Jimmy Page’s tones were the result of using the two pickups at the same time. Some describe the basic dual-pickup sound as a Tele on steroids. I’m not in love with that description, but if the shoe fits… It actually has some common traits with the dual-pickup setting on a Telecaster, but it has a larger spectrum of tones available. The reason for this is the not-so-secret ingredient in the Les Paul recipe: the ability to adjust the volume and tone pots for each pickup individually with both pickups active. This gives you a whole continuum of different shades at your fingertips, and there are so many variants that you could easily find yourself spending hours just experimenting with the sounds and playing feels. Try having volume full up on the bridge pickup and reduce it to eight or seven on the neck pickup, running both together. The result is a bright but somewhat less aggressive lead tone compared to the bridge pickup on its own. By the same token, running the neck on ten with the bridge turned down to, say, sevenish gives a little more clarity than the neck humbucker on its own. The really cool thing is that with a little bit of practice you’ll be able to adjust these on the fly while playing, for small changes in timbre and tonality throughout a song.
As I mentioned at the start, the Les Paul is a staple in classic hard rock styles — and then very often using the treble pickup into a Marshall-type overdriven amp. As good as this sounds, there are a lot of really beautiful clean tones available as well. The bridge pickup can work well for country, and the dual-pickup setting described earlier gives some zing to clean sounds. For my tastes, the neck pickup by itself is an absolute gem when it comes to clean tones. It’s substantial enough to carry single-note lines without sounding thin, but at the same time it can work very well with different type of chord/rhythm work. It comes as no surprise that Larry Carlton said that 90% of his 70’s session work was done on the neck pickup (yes, I know — he played an ES-335, but that’s close enough).
For the kind of sounds I like, and the kind of amps I’m playing, it’s important to dial down the bass. The Les Paul is a guitar with a full low end, and it can get muddy and indistinct if you’re not careful. For this reason I set the bass control on my THD Flexi low (at nine or ten o’clock) and the mids and treble at around two o’clock.
The Les Paul is a more versatile instrument than one would expect, given its reputation for fat, overdriven humbucker tones. Granted, it does do those, but the clean and semi-dirty tones are wonderful and well worth the time spent experimenting with settings and pickup selections.
What are your experiences with the Les Paul? Don’t keep them to yourself, let us know in the comments.