Les Paul would have been a hundred years old this year. That’s quite a milestone; and Gibson has decided that all of their products in the Les Paul and SG line should get a facelift to honour this.
It hasn’t gone down too well…
Maybe I’m getting old or I’m just a traditionalist but it used to be that once upon a time when you went to buy a Les Paul Standard you had a choice on whether or not you wanted a fatter 50s style neck or the slimmer 60s one. Then Gibson decided they’d just offer a 60s style one but have the Les Paul ‘Traditional’ for those who want a fatter neck. You also had no frills, meaning your electronics were just two volume, two tone, a three way toggle and two humbuckers that did everything you wanted. This was the case until about 2008 when Gibson decided that the Les Paul Standards needed an ‘asymetrical’ neck profile (50s style on the bass strings, 60s on the higher three), coil splitting (Useful if you’re only using one guitar for a show I guess) and a ‘Peter Green’ switch that reverses the polarity of the neck pickup. Don’t know why you’d have that, unless you were in a pre-Lyndsey Buckingham Fleetwood Mac tribute act…
2008’s locking jacks aside, those guitars are awesome compared to what Gibson has decided is ‘necessary’ for this year: They’ve widened the neck by about 5mm, something I don’t really have a problem with that as I have pretty large hands anyway, but it still feels like an Ibanez. There’s a ‘zero fret nut’ that is essentially a brass nut that can be raised and lowered using an allen key which, while useful for slide, makes the tone a little brighter- Something you’d not normally associate with a Les Paul. The pickguard is a novel idea, having a clip on pickguard that leaves no screw holes but why not just go back to the 2012 way of doing things where they’re shipped with them but not added to the guitar letting you decide? Like many, I was put off by the 2015 radical changes, but still wanted to give them a fair shot.
Adding to this bright tone are titanium saddles that of course are a little more hard wearing than before and (probably the biggest bugbear amongst people) robot tuners. Gibson calls them ‘G-Force’ tuners and can have your guitar tuned in the drop of a hat and put into whatever tuning you want with the sytem able to store presets. As a concept, this is brilliant, but having it forced upon you is a little bit shit. Having the option of whether or not to have these things would be better for the players. Even the Les Paul Traditional has these things. Hardly ‘traditional’, is it?
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Gibsons. I own one and it’s my main guitar due to its comfortable weight, great sound and versatility. But now I think even the biggest of fanboys would struggle to want to buy one this year. It’s like buying an Audi: Do you buy one because it’s a piece of German engineering (and therefore going to be good) or do you buy it because it’s an Audi? As someone who works in the motor trade by day it’s usually the latter, but I think now you can see my point: The changes are so radical and so out there that even the ‘badge wankers’ as we call them won’t want to buy one. It’s the most radical idea since Bernie Ecclestone decided to put sprinklers around formula one tracks and turn them on at different points in the race.
I guess Les was always innovating, but I think there would have been a point where he would have just stopped. The split pickups I can get. If you’ve only got one guitar and need that sound you can get it. But things like the robot tuners: At least give people the option of whether or not you get them. What really struck me from this experience was playing the 1959 Custom Shop Standard Reissue. In this respect, I just found myself thinking that nothing about these guitars needs any ‘improvement’. And that, at core, is the the biggest source of controversy with the 2015. As much as I love the impulse towards innovation, sometimes an old recipe is truly already perfect.
Fender have gone this long without zany ideas, Gibson. Why can’t you be like them?