Love it or loathe it, no other electric guitar has generated mystery and controversy the way the Gibson Les Paul has. Introduced in 1952, the original models can easily fetch upwards of five figures on today’s vintage market. But sixty years down the line, what are your options if you are searching for quality Les Paul alternatives?
The Les Paul Single Cut Guitar
What defines a Les Paul guitar? Is it any Gibson guitar with the Les Paul model name? Must it have a single-cut shape? Does it have a mahogany body with a maple top, or a pancake body, or a chambered body? Is the neck made out of one piece mahogany or three-piece maple? Does it have a Brazilian rosewood neck and aniline dye?
Gibson has made Les Paul models in all these guises over its long history. If it’s the famous ‘Bursts manufactured between 1958-1960 that you’re after, well, even Gibson hasn’t seemed to master that recipe yet. Nowadays, these original ‘Bursts regularly bring astronomic prices on the vintage market.
What makes a true Les Paul?
Some people will argue that for a guitar to be a true Les Paul, it must come out of a Gibson factory (which particular factory is sometimes also up for debate) and feature the Les Paul logo, regardless of materials, methods, or even shape. Anything else should be considered a counterfeit. And they would be correct. In fact, Gibson will probably be the first to let you know that anything even remotely in the vicinity of the Les Paul shape, is fake and illegal.
Others will argue that a Les Paul is actually the original ‘Bursts made prior to 1960, and any guitar made identical to those specs. Even Gibson has been trying to replicate those early Les Paul models, and will now charge you a premium for its most accurate replicas. But some purists are vehement that Gibson’s own replicas, which Gibson goes as far as to call clones, are unfaithful to the original, differing in some details. These people also have a point.
Chasing the dragon: Les Paul alternatives
Today, there are many, many Les Paul alternatives, covering all price ranges, and these guitars will certainly get you the Les Paul sound. But if you’re willing (or eager) to look beyond Gibson’s current offerings on the single-cut market and go down the rabbit hole, there are some fantastic models out there to tempt you.
Here are 5 premium Les Paul-style guitars, from interpretations to downright clones of those original ‘Bursts. None of these instruments are affordable Les Paul alternatives, so expect to pay custom shop (or higher) prices for these. Let’s dive in!
Paul Reed Smith McCarty SC 594
Of course there’s a Paul Reed Smith model on this list. The company was taken to court by Gibson over its single-cut shape. Gibson lost, and PRS went right back to making the model. In fact, the company decided to make models even more similar to the Les Paul.
The relatively recent McCarty 594 models are named after Ted McCarty, the president of Gibson during its golden years and the man responsible for many design aspects of some of the company’s most iconic instruments. The control layout will be very familiar to Les Paul players. And the 594 part of the model name is derived from its 24.594” scale length, which Paul claims is what the original ‘Bursts had, not the 24 ¾” that is more widely accepted for Les Paul. This claim has been verified by several other sources as well. Im not sure exactly how much noticeable difference this makes, but it’s a cool little piece of trivia.
The McCarty 594 comes in both double- and single-cut models, and since 2020 is available in PRS’ proprietary nitro over cellulose finish. It has the standard Les Paul recipe of mahogany body and neck, with maple cap and rosewood fingerboard (although for an additional cost, PRS will let you choose any woods you want). The models also feature PRS’ in-house 58/15 LT TCI pickups, and some cool hybrid hardware. Like many other guitar builders, PRS doesn’t believe in fret-edge binding, a hallmark of high-end Gibson guitars.
Tokai has been manufacturing instruments in Japan for a long time, but the company became well-known for its copies of American brands in the ‘70s. While Gibson and Fender were struggling to keep players happy, companies like Tokai from Japan swooped in to offer high quality alternatives at lower prices. This eventually led to what are now referred to as lawsuit-era guitars. But the story doesn’t end there. Tokai still makes high quality replicas, and is still able to offer guitars that are constructed closer to those original ‘Bursts than Gibson. The company offers everything from budget copies, to high-end replicas, complete with Honduras mahogany, Brazilian rosewood, and nitro finishes. Like the Tokai LS370 FVF.
Schwarz St. Helens Summit
Gerhard Schwarz is a luthier from Bavaria, who makes guitars based on classic designs. That is by no means all he’s confined to, as he also has some original models of his own. The St. Helens Summit is not really a clone, and has a few differences, such as the scale length being 24¾” instead of 24.594”. But if that matters to you, you can give Gerhard a call and he’ll be happy to do you a custom order. Of course, you get all the high-end stuff, including Brazilian rosewood and period correct dyes and glues.
If you’re an A-list celebrity, or a bonafide rock star, then you probably want a Gil Yaron. It seems he has since shifted to a slightly more “inspired-by” design recently, than the full-on Burst replica for which he has become renowned. His Les Paul models are as close as you can get to the ‘Bursts of the ‘50s, and can cost 5 figures.
Each detail is meticulously recreated, from the nylon nut to the celluloid inlays, using the same materials Gibson was using way back when. The only way to tell them apart from the real deal is by the cleverly disguised headstock logo that looks strikingly familiar to a very famous one. But it comes with a hefty price tag, one that would put many Custom Shop Gibson Les Pauls, and even some vintage ones, to shame. He has since updated his design to the new Bone model, probably to avoid any friction with Gibson.
Canadian luthier Tom Bartlett has a few Les Paul replicas floating around on the used market. Unfortunately for Tom, these guitars were clones in every way, right down to the logo on the headstock. My suspicion is that Gibson might have given Bartlett a bit of grief, because upon searching, Bartlett Guitars’ website has a very Les Paul-inspired looking Retrospec model, but no real replicas. However, upon closer inspection, the Retrospec model reveals itself as a ‘Burst replica in hiding. If the construction methods and woods used are important to you, but you feel uncomfortable having a Les Paul shaped guitar that wasn’t manufactured by Gibson, this would be a good alternative. Otherwise, if you want a guitar that looks identical to the one musicians were rocking in the ’60s, Bartlett’s replicas do sometimes show up on the used market, but expect to pay top dollar.
Have we left out your favourite premium LP-style guitar? Let us know in the comments section below!