The Gibson Les Paul is clearly one of the all-time classics, and it’s still hard to find a better and more versatile rock tone and playing feel than this seminal set-neck single-cut delivers—or, at least, can deliver when set up for optimal performance.
I’m not talking about the general action and intonation adjustments that are common to all electric guitars, although those are worth getting right, too. But there are several easy tweaks that any player can perform, along with a few minor mods, that can help Les Pauls sound and play their best. Check out these Five Simple Les Paul Performance Tips, and better yet, apply them to your own beloved guitar to discover what they can do for you.
Note that many of these also apply to the Gibson SG, ES-335 and the like, as well as other guitars that are similarly designed.
Humbucker Balance Adjustments
The traditional PAF-style humbucking pickups, common to most Les Pauls, can be adjusted in several ways to fine-tune the frequency content of the signal they deliver to your output jack; but the possibilities involved are often misunderstood, or totally overlooked.
Obviously, these pickups can be raised and lowered to adjust their output slightly, but let’s examine an even more overlooked feature: the adjustable pole pieces.
It’s often written that the single row of adjustable pole pieces in traditional humbuckers is provided to balance the output between the strings, but that’s only part of their ideal function. Given that there’s only one row of adjustable poles, while the other remains fixed regardless, there’s only so much that raising or lowering the threaded poles can achieve in this regard. It’s also worth noting that the difference in composition and the larger diameter of the slug (fixed) pole pieces versus the threaded (adjustable) poles often makes the slug coil just a little fatter and thicker sounding in some humbuckers.
Of more interesting potential, I propose, are the threaded poles’ capabilities for balancing the bass and treble content of each individual pickup as a whole, when used in conjunction with the pickup’s overall height-adjustment screws (those at each end, which support the pickup in the pickup ring).
First, consider the phenomenon that a string’s vibration produces a brighter tone closer to the bridge, and a darker tone as they approach the neck. In the bridge pickup, the threaded poles are closer to the bridge, and therefore pick up a more trebly signal, while the signal picked up by the slug coil—roughly 5/8" further away from the bridge—is a little bassier.
You see where we’re going? In basic terms, lowering the threaded poles as far down as they’ll go while raising the entire pickup slightly, thus bringing the slug poles a little closer to the strings relative to the threaded poles’ previous positions, will increase the warmth and thickness from the bridge pickup. Doing the reverse—raising the threaded poles, while lowering the entire pickup slightly—will make it brighter.
For the neck pickup, this technique works in reverse since the threaded poles are nearer the neck; i.e., Raise the adjustable poles and lower the entire pickup for a warmer sound, or lower the poles and raise the pickup to make it brighter.
Obviously this is easily reversible, so you can try it for yourself without risking anything. In many cases, relatively minor adjustments will produce noticeable sonic differences, so you don’t have to go to extremes to get results. Try a little in the desired direction, a little more, and lock it in when you’ve hit your own sweet spot. With both bridge and neck pickup, raising the pickup itself significantly will increase its output, too, so you need to work with that factor in mind. Even so, this provides a surprisingly powerful means of adjusting each pickup’s frequency content, and therefore the sound of your guitar as a whole.
Clean and Lube Your Nut Slots
While the 1958-’60 Gibson Les Paul is an indisputable classic, many guitarists who spend a lot of playing time on one will agree that there are several minor aspects of the original design that can be improved. The back-angled headstock and outward splay of the center strings between nut and tuners contribute their own little bit of magic to the overall sonic brew, but they also combine to create a tuning weak point.
Together, they result in more friction in the nut slots than found in guitars with a straighter run from slots to tuners (and a shallower headstock pitch), and this friction can lead to hitching—and, more to the point, tuning issues—if it isn’t corrected.
Few are the habitual Les Paul players who haven’t experienced the culprit of the G string going out of tune after vigorous bending, which is a result of the factors described above. It can happen to any string that is bent while playing, but the G string, aside from being one of the more-often-bent strings in many playing styles, has a more severe break-angle from slot to tuner post than any string other than its mirror-image partner, the D string (which is generally less-bent anyway).
Bend any string hard on a Les Paul to raise its pitch, and the string pulls through the nut slot ever so slightly toward the fingerboard side of the nut. Release the bend, and if this slot is too tight, or sticky, or just subject to an extreme string angle, that string might not slide all the way back through it and into its original resting position. The result: the string has gone sharp.
The obvious cure is to keep your nut slots clean and free of dirt, gunk, and debris. But it’s worth going a step further, too: rubbing some graphite from a sharp-tipped pencil into the slot will help to lubricate it and avoid string hitching. Or you can go one or two better and use one of the proprietary lubricants designed precisely for this purpose. Rene Martinez GraphitALL, Big Bends Nut Sauce, StewMac Guitar Grease, and MusicNomad Tune-It are all excellent solutions, and can often solve the problem with just a little dab each time you change strings.
If one of these doesn’t do the trick, along with some judicious slot cleaning, it’s probably worth seeing a professional for a nut service or total replacement.
Optimize Your Potentiometer Values
Gibson has used a variety of potentiometer values in its Les Pauls over the decades, and this can have a direct and noticeable effect on the brightness and clarity of the guitars themselves. In recent years, players have often tried to combat the dark, muddy tonality heard in too many LPs from the late ’70s and ’80s; so we’ll investigate efforts to go in that direction. If your Les Paul is too bright, though, merely reverse this advice.
Put simply, the higher the value of the guitar’s volume potentiometer (pot, for short), the more high frequencies pass through in the signal. Les Pauls were equipped with 500k-ohm pots in the late ’50s, and for many guitarists this remains ideal. In later years, however, after the single-cut Les Paul returned to the catalog, Gibson variously used 400k and 300k pots, and these sucked some of the brightness and clarity from the pickups’ signals.
If you’re looking for a little more of these qualities from your Les Paul, first check what value pots are in it currently. You’ll usually find this spec stamped into the base or the side of the potentiometer. If you discover 300k or 400k pots, a move to 500k pots will often do the trick. Some players, and manufacturers, have even been known to push the norm lately by going with 550k pots to ensure optimal clarity and brightness.
Swapping potentiometers is fairly straightforward if you already have adequate soldering skills. Be sure to consult a reputable parts supplier to find the right pots to fit your particular Les Paul; and you’ll likely want to specify a “vintage taper” pot to ensure it rolls off the guitar’s volume smoothly and evenly.
Change Tone Capacitor Values
Without kicking the entire hornet’s nest regarding the degree to which any tone capacitor affects your guitar’s sound when it’s totally out of network, it’s definitely worth considering the type and value of your tone caps themselves. Traditional tone controls are low-pass filters, which tap off some of the high frequencies in the guitar signal as you turn them down by sending them to ground via a capacitor. The higher the value of this capacitor, the lower the frequency point at which these high frequencies are rolled off.
For this reason, different makes and types of guitars and those loaded with different types of pickups are often fitted with tone caps of different values, and appropriately so. Most Les Paul fans have come to agree that .022uF, close to the value of the caps used in the ’50s, is ideal for the voice of this guitar. As with the examination of volume potentiometers above, however, some players like to ensure a little less mud from their neck pickups in particular when their associated tone controls are turned down, and a change to a .015uF cap in that position has become popular with some.
An examination of your guitar’s tone caps is worth undertaking if you feel your guitar becomes dark or muddy or dull too fast as you turn down each pickup’s tone control; and it might be worth considering a change to these values if you find something else lurking inside the control cavity.
Players seeking circa-’59 sonic performance from their Les Pauls might also want to check that they have ’50s-spec wiring, which many Les Pauls throughout the years do not. Many feel that ’50s-spec wiring sucks out tone and clarity less than modern-spec wiring when you turn down your guitar’s controls, and it’s usually extremely easy to switch from one configuration to the other.
In many modern wiring configurations, the tone cap is connected directly to the volume-pot terminal to which the pickup’s positive lead is also connected; it then runs to the center (wiper) tab on the tone control (there are other configurations, but most are somewhat similar to this). In ’50s-spec wiring, the tone cap is instead connected to the volume pot’s center (wiper) tab, (which is that pot’s output to the selector switch) and goes from there to the bottom-outside tab on the tone control. The result is that the tone network acts on the output from the volume pot, rather than the input, and arguably loads the signal less, even when out of use.
If your overall quest is for more clarity and less mud from your Les Paul, this is another tip worth considering. And if you don’t feel your own soldering skills are up to snuff, it’s usually not very expensive to have a qualified repair person perform this for you. It’s also a good modification to partner with any upgrade to potentiometers and tone caps, since the work for both jobs involves many of the same solder connections.
Bonus Point: Upgrade Those Tiny Strap Buttons!
This one is more about safety than tone—your guitar’s safety, that is—but without undertaking this on all of my own Les Paul-style guitars, I don’t think I’d even have the confidence to walk on stage and play a note.
The original, vintage-style strap buttons used on Gibson’s electric guitars are extremely small in diameter, and are really inadequate for the job of keeping strap and guitar together. Add the position at which this button is installed part way up the upper-bass-side bout of the Les Paul in particular—and the angle at which the strap end clings to it in standing playing position—and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. How many Les Paul neck and headstock breaks have been the result of the inadequate strap button that Gibson spec’d for this model in the first place? The world will never know, but it’s bound to be an alarming number.
The remedy for this is kind of up to the player, but it really behooves you to find some safer and more secure way of anchoring that strap to the guitar. Some players like the simple fix of using a rubber washer from a Grolsch beer bottle, or similar, popped over the button after the strap is on to help keep it in place. In truth, though, this only goes so far, since those buttons still aren’t big enough to keep the rubber washer in place once you get grooving.
Several varieties of quality strap-locks are available commercially, as are enlarged strap buttons that help keep things secure all on their own. Most such solutions can be installed with no modification to the guitar, or just a little enlarging of the screw hole at most. It’s sad, I know, because this means deviating from the authentic vintage look of the guitar—if you’re a vintage-reissue kind of player—but the change is far less tragic than the frequent alternative.