If you’re just starting out on your guitar-playing journey, you’re probably wondering what we mean by the best Epiphone Les Pauls. How exactly do they differ from standard Les Pauls? OK, let us explain...
For many guitarists, the Gibson Les Paul is the alpha and omega of electric guitar design. Gibson’s peerless single-cut was the original aspirational guitar. It has the tone. It has the aesthetic. The thing is, even with Gibson’s Tribute Series offering a stripped-down Les Paul that costs around a grand, not all of us can afford a US-built model. That’s where Epiphone – a Gibson brand since 1957 – comes in.
One look at the latest Epiphone catalog will tell you a few things. Firstly, that the manufacturer has an abundance of its own designs – right now, there are few more exciting brands on the market. Secondly, you might notice that it offers a cornucopia of Epiphone Les Pauls.
Some of these are perfect for beginner electrics, priced to be someone’s first guitar. Others offer an approachable second guitar, for intermediate players who are getting serious about the instrument and want to take their playing and their sound to the next level. And it’s indicative of the energy and innovation afoot in Epiphone HQ that the manufacturer also offers models that serious players will consider on their own merits.
We have some of those top-shelf instruments here, and they all ask the question: Why pay an extra few hundred bucks for an entry-level US Gibson when a top-line Epiphone is stacked with top-quality components and pro-quality pickups? Why, indeed.
We’ve got 10 of the best Epiphone Les Pauls on our list, with something for everyone. We’ll link to the best deals, too. So let’s take the car off Craigslist before you do anything silly, and see if we can find you a great LP that you don’t need to sell the family silver for.
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With its ProBucker pickups (which replicate the vintage Alnico II magic of the original PAF humbuckers), classic finish and tonewood cocktail of solid mahogany and maple up top, the Epiphone Les Paul Standard ’50s in Metallic Gold is a real chip off the old-school block. The neck profile is reassuringly meaty and supremely comfortable; and should you feel like bending a note and holding it, you’ll be knocked out by the sustain.
With vintage models held up as the acme of guitar design, it’s no surprise to see so many aged and relic’d finishes on the market. But how refreshing it is to witness Epiphone applying a worn finish to a beginner electric in the shape of the Epiphone Les Paul Special Vintage Edition, giving it some of the kudos and magic of a 1950s guitar. Meanwhile, the dual-humbucker format and solid poplar body offer a convincing taste of that thick and warm LP tone that you’d expect from a guitar bearing Les Paul’s name.
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The Epiphone Les Paul Standard ’50s is a home run for Epiphone. Built for traditionalists, it features a big ol’ neck that fills the palm, making it extremely comfortable to wield. Described by Epiphone as a “rounded medium C-profile”, the neck is glued to the body via a long neck tenon – a deeper-set neck joint that adds mass and can enhance sustain if all other things are equal.
Well, there’s no shortage of sustain here, and in a blind test the Epiphone Les Paul Standard ’50s more than held its own. It feels like a Les Paul – a heavy one at that – and it looks the part, too. Sure, there’s Indian laurel on the 12”/30.5cm fingerboard, but it’s a decent rosewood substitute and the trapezoid inlays are tastefully applied. The finish options are excellent, though if pushed we’d opt for the Metallic Gold.
Furthermore, this sounds like a Les Paul. The ProBuckers are outstanding pickups. With an Alnico II magnet, these PAF-alikes are finely balanced – warm, with some width to the tone and no muddiness. There’s an exceptional level of clarity in the high end, and you lose none of it as you roll the volume back. The ’50s-style wiring loom features high-quality CTS pots, meaning both tone and volume controls do their job and taper off nicely.
That’s one of the great things about the Les Paul’s design. With its exquisite tonewood cocktail – the low-end authority and warmth of mahogany paired with the brightness of maple – the dual-volume/dual-tone setup operates as a powerful onboard EQ, allowing you to mine the guitar for all kinds of sounds.
You could dial in some jazz tones. Rock? Absolutely. The ProBuckers offer moderate output, but through an overdriven amplifier they’ll really sing. Add some fuzz or distortion and this guitar will do metal, too. Alternatively, the Epiphone Les Paul Standard ’50s has a voice that makes it a natural for blues. There’s artery-clogging cream at the neck, while the slightly overwound bridge pickup can put some stinging heat into your boogie-woogie shuffle – just like you can with a US-built Les Paul.
Read the full Epiphone Les Paul Standard ’50s review
This is a beginner’s electric guitar and a fine one at that. No, it doesn’t quite have the tonal range of the Standard or some of the other higher-priced models here, but you will get a well-made, versatile instrument that has a very approachable ’60s slim-taper D-profile neck.
Some beginner guitars can be intimidating, but with a gently proportioned neck, a dual-humbucker setup, a scaled-down control circuit featuring volume and tone knobs, and a three-way pickup selector mounted between them, there’s a straightforward charm to the Special VE that’s hard to resist.
Also, we love the slightly aged finishes here, which make the guitar look as though it’s seen a few decades of action. It’s a nice aesthetic for a beginner guitar, and means the instrument is more likely to outlive its original purpose as a runaround to learn some chords and scales on. Upgrade the tuners (these aren’t bad but they are basic), fit a new set of pickups (though the standard ones are perfectly respectable, with plenty of crunch and no hum), and the Epiphone Les Paul Special Vintage Edition will stand you in good stead as you continue down the rabbit hole that is guitar playing and gear. Even if you don’t, this is a solid purchase and a no-brainer if you’re just starting out.
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The result of a collaboration between Epiphone and the Gibson Custom Shop, the 1959 Les Paul Standard Outfit is inspired by the Holy Grail of vintage guitars, the 1959 Les Paul Standard. And, it has to be said, it’s a very special instrument.
The first thing you might notice is the AAA flame maple on the top of the guitar. It’s not quite a thick cap like on the original models, but it’s a very handsome feature at this price, and really pops. While it’s not relic’d in any way, the aged gloss finish gives the 1959 Les Paul Standard Outfit a lived-in VOS vibe.
Some of the best Epiphone Les Pauls make great options for modding, but the manufacturer has done the modding here. How do you improve upon this? There are a pair of Gibson USA BurstBuckers at the neck and bridge positions, with top-quality components used throughout. The control circuit for the pickups comprises Mallory 150 polyester film caps and CTS pots. The toggle switch and output jack are made by Switchcraft and are built to last.
It might be one of the most expensive Les Pauls in the Epiphone lineup, but, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. As we’ve come to expect from Epiphone, the fit and finish are tip-top, and you can keep it that way because the guitar comes with a hardshell case – always a sign that the maker is proud of its work.
Like the other guitars on this list, the Epiphone Les Paul Special is constructed in the spirit of its Gibson forebears – except here, recreating the simple pleasures of a slab of mahogany with some strings requires fewer compromises. There’s no noticeable chamfering, belly cuts or any of those fancy things. It’s just a slab of wood with two hot P-90s.
Is the P-90 the best pickup of all time? The answer is, of course, yes, but then we all go ahead and get on with our lives, ignoring that fact and obsessing about vintage-correct PAF winds instead. Well, such is the pathology of the guitar nerd. Let it be said, however, that these soapbar pickups wail, articulating just what it is that makes the P-90 design so great. Roll the volume back and they are clean and precise, but with a little more warmth and less spike than regular single-coils. Dig in and they start to assert themselves. They’re not metal pickups but they certainly enjoy some drive, and really get going if you are so bold as to place a fuzz pedal between your guitar and amp.
OK, some players might prefer the Junior version with its solitary pickup. But for us, more is definitely more, and having two onboard makes for a very versatile Les Paul. Indeed, the Special is the darling of many a punk-rock, blues-rock, blues, jazz and indie-rock player.
You can play metal on pretty much any guitar, if your will is strong. You can certainly play metal on any of the aforementioned Les Pauls. But some guitars make it easy; guitars such as the Epiphone Les Paul Prophecy. Spec’d especially for the dark arts, it’s a wholly uncompromising instrument. We’ve seen high-end Epiphones and vintage-inspired Epiphones, but this is all of the above and more. This is a high-performance Epiphone, and it’s thrilling.
It’s also very 21st century. Take the pickups. Here we have a set of active Fishman Fluence humbuckers, more commonly found on pro models from the likes of ESP and Ibanez. Bringing that multi-voiced performance to a Les Paul format, they’re powered by a 9V battery that’s secreted on the rear of the guitar, and they let you switch between contemporary high-gain voicing, where the output is hotter and the frequency response tighter; a PAF-style response with more-open dynamics, giving you a tone like the BurstBuckers found on the 1959 model; and a hum-free single-coil voicing.
There’s a subjectivity when it comes to neck profiles, but for our money that asymmetric neck profile is a real winner, finding the right balance between comfort and speed. Those who might be tempted by the superlative Flying - Prophecy over concerns that the Les Paul’s body mass made it too heavy can think again; the weight relief used on the body makes it a very different beast to heavy models such as the 1959 and the ’50s Standard.
The Les Paul is a heritage design, and so a certain amount of delicacy and diplomacy is required when it comes to updating the format. Modernizing the Les Paul is arguably the toughest job anyone at Gibson will have – ditto for Epiphone.
The Epiphone Les Paul Modern, built in the image of the Gibson US model, gets the balance right. Indeed, the finish options are quite conservative; Graphite Black, Faded Pelham Blue and Sparkling Burgundy all recall the solid colours of the late ’60s when Gibson was mindful of its great rival Fender’s ever-growing color palette and revised its finish options accordingly.
Like the Prophecy models, the Modern has an asymmetrical neck. It feels very much like a hybrid between a D and a C-profile, the flatter C-profile on the treble side helping players to negotiate busy lead guitar passages. Upper-fret access has been enhanced with a contoured heel joint.
While we have ProBucker pickups once more, the control circuit is a little more involved, incorporating a phase-switching function and a coil-tap. To play some classic rock, choose the full, natural humbucker voicing. For a soupçon of Peter Green, engage the phase-switching. Need some chime? Activate single-coil mode. There’s also a treble bleed circuit installed so that you don’t lose any high end as you roll the volume back.
Now, if you’re thinking that this update is a little too staid, and are asking where the retina-bothering finishes are, look no further than the Epiphone Les Paul Modern Figured, named for its AAA flame maple veneer. There, you’ve got a choice of some outré color-burst finishes. Caffe Latte Fade? We’ll take one to go – hey, it’s nice to have the option.
The current Epiphone line has a number of very cool signature models – Joe Bonamassa’s ‘Black Beauty’ and Jared James Nichols’ ‘Old Glory’ spring to mind – but Tommy Thayer’s takes the cake for its exuberant Friday Night finish and a spec that’s tailor-made for rock guitar playing.
In the Seymour Duncan JB humbucker, the KISS lead guitarist has made a judicious pickup choice. The JB is the quintessential rock-guitar pickup, a hot-rodded evolutionary leap from the more moderately powered PAF template. What this means is that Thayer’s Les Paul has the dynamics required to play the blues and rock, but more than enough power for metal, too. You will have no problem teasing pinch harmonics from that bridge humbucker, and in the right context it can be a great thrash-metal pickup – just ask Dave Mustaine.
The ’60s slim-taper neck profile isn’t going to stand in the way of some pyrotechnic lead guitar. As for the finish, well, it’s super-cool if you can pull it off. That matching headstock with the chrome truss rod cover is a nice touch, as is the multi-ply binding – more often seen on a Les Paul Custom. The hardware is solid, too, with a set of Grover Rotomatics helping to keep things solid and allowing you to play hard. This, again, is another pro-quality electric guitar from Epiphone; one that will serve you well both onstage and in the studio.
If the Gibson Les Paul epitomizes the aspirational guitar, then the Gibson Les Paul Custom takes this concept and runs with it, putting split-diamond inlay on the headstock, block inlay on the fretboard, multi-ply binding all over the place and gold hardware where applicable.
Naturally, Epiphone has got in on the Custom action, offering its own dressed-up ‘awards ceremony’ LP in Alpine White and Ebony. But anyone who’s been paying attention to the Les Paul Custom over the years will tell you that the Silverburst is The One. Most famously played by Adam Jones of Tool – also Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher – the Silverburst has amassed a cult following. Although Jones has teased an official Epiphone signature Les Paul Custom on Instagram, that more-affordable version of his Gibson Custom Shop models (RRP $DreamOn) is at the prototype stage. In the meantime, this limited-edition model is as good as it gets.
Tone-wise, it features a pair of ProBuckers and isn’t a million miles away from both the ’50s and ’60s Standards’ warmth. But it feels a little more like the latter, with whom it shares its slim-taper neck. Jones fans will love it. The ProBuckers are among the best you’ll find in an Epiphone guitar. But this is such a good guitar that if you wanted a Silverburst Custom just like Jones’s, then an upgraded bridge humbucker would enhance this considerably.
It seems strange to be recommending guitars on the grounds that you could improve them by modding them, but that’s part of the appeal here. Sure, this model is great out of the box, but if you find yourself outgrowing the tone and wanting a fresh option, a new set of pickups can relight the fire. But that’s a question for another day. From rolled fingerboard edges to the ‘60s-style Kalamazoo open-book headstock, CTS pots and black ‘Speed Knobs’, this is pretty darned aspirational, and more than enough guitar for the money.
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An exotic variation on the theme with a lot of spec carried over from the previous entry, the Epiphone Les Paul Custom Koa has to make this list simply because it exudes a sense of class that belies its modest price.
Besides looking incredible, what does koa offer? Well, at this price, we’re not talking a big slab of the stuff – more a veneer – but we tend to think of this premium tonewood as sitting somewhere between Brazilian rosewood and mahogany, adding complexity to the high end whenever it’s partnered with mahogany.
As with the other Customs on the list, there are ProBuckers at the neck and bridge, along with the typical dual-volume and dual-tone control setup. All the aesthetic choices really pop with a koa top – the multi-ply binding, the ebony fingerboard and block inlay, the gold hardware… And, given how naturally figured the koa tops are, no two will look alike.
The Epiphone Les Paul Special II makes for an excellent beginner’s guitar. We could make the case for its inclusion on the basis of its respectable build, its classy figured maple veneer and dark-cherry-stained body giving it the look of Slash’s legendary Appetite For Destruction guitar – which, let’s be real, wasn’t a Gibson either but a Kris Derrig replica.
This guitar also has a neat dual-humbucker setup. Those humbuckers have powerful ceramic magnets that make for aggressive, rocking tones – perfect for putting some power behind your first riffs.
But it’s the extras that make this such a great guitar for first-timers. As well as the instrument itself, you get a 15W Slash Snakepit-15 solid-state combo, a lead, a strap, a gig bag, plus some Slash signature picks. If you get lost after Smoke On The Water’s rhythm figure one, then you have some free eMedia online lessons to help demystify your first adventures with the guitar.
The amp has two channels, plenty of crunch on tap, a three-band EQ for comprehensive tone-shaping, and the all-important auxiliary input for playing along to your favorite tracks. There’s also a headphones output, which your neighbors will be very pleased about.
Best Epiphone Les Pauls: Buying advice
The 2021 Epiphone lineup is split into two categories: Original and Inspired By Gibson. As the name implies, the Original category is populated by Epiphone designs that you won’t find anywhere else – i.e. on the Gibson website. You’ll find guitars such as the Casino, the Wiltshire and the Coronet in there, and it really is quite thrilling to see some of these back in production with fresh finishes and updated spec.
The Inspired By Gibson models are, by some distance, a larger collection, and this is where the ES models, the SG, the Flying V, the Explorer, the Firebird and – of course – the Les Paul are listed. These designs have been with us since the 1950s and early ’60s. Modernizing a collection such as this is not easy when there’s a brand heritage to be maintained, but looking at Epiphone’s lineup versus Gibson, there’s clearly a little more room for maneuver.
We see that in the Prophecy series, which aggressively appropriates Gibson’s Flying V, Les Paul and Explorer, and weaponizes them with active, multi-voiced Fishman Fluence humbuckers. They are perfect for metal, and even have a little visual flair with the abalone/MOP block fingerboard inlay and split-diamond on the headstock.
The most forward-thinking design in both the Gibson and Epiphone collections is the newly configured Les Paul Modern. From the front, it looks like a regular Les Paul Standard with some jazzy crystal-clear control knobs and a finish that recalls Gibson’s late-’60s adventures in solid metallic colors. Yet turn it around and you’ll find a contoured heel to enhance upper-fret access. Also, under the surface, the guitar’s body has a number of cavities in it to reduce weight, along with a control circuit with push-pull functions to activate a P-90 mode when required. It’s pretty nifty, not straying too far from the original vision while offering some mod cons that today’s player might appreciate.
You might expect the two brands to be rigidly aligned when it comes to finish options, but here, Epiphone has a little more scope to experiment, offering the Les Paul Modern Figured in some unorthodox bursts that might just catch the eye of anyone tiring of the same old.
Epiphone: A beginner’s guitar?
Epiphone might be more affordable across the board than its parent company, but we shouldn’t typecast it as an entry-level brand. Just look at the 1959 Les Paul Standard Outfit – spec’d in the first collaboration between Epiphone and the Gibson Custom Shop, it’s a serious guitar at a reasonable but by no means cheap price.
The strategy seems clear: keep innovating at the top end of the range, adding better pickups and components, while scaling-down the spec for beginner models. After all, beginners can’t be spending 500 dollars on a guitar. The biggest differences you’ll find between the top-line Epiphone models and its most basic builds are that the entry-level models typically use bolt-on necks as opposed to the glued-in necks found on the rest of the range. The pickups and components are not quite of the same standard. No one would expect them to be.
As for the fundamental differences in build between a US-built Gibson and a Chinese-built top-of-the-line Epiphone? Besides the headstock, Epiphone fingerboards are made of Indian laurel while the US Gibsons are fashioned out of rosewood. On the Epiphone Les Pauls, you’ll find a maple veneer, while on Gibson models it’s a thicker cap that naturally imparts more influence on the tone of the instrument.
Though their histories and fortunes are inextricably linked, there will always be a little distance between the two brands. However, that gap is closing, and right now we would happily gig a high-end Epiphone Les Paul. The components, build, tone, feel and sustain make a compelling case.