The massive crunchy guitar sound of the intro to TRex’ ‘Twentieth Century Boy’ first made me aware of the great Les Paul guitar tone and it still sounds great today. At the same time in the early Seventies, Mick Ronsons tone on the albums ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ is also a benchmark for that British Glam Guitar sound. The combination of a Les Paul and EL34 valve powered amps is the tone of classic rock all through the Seventies. Think Paul Kossof, Mick Ralphs, Mick Ronson, Jimmy Page, Dicky Betts – it’s a long list so I’ll stop here. Many of these great guitar players used original 1950’s Gibson Les Pauls which were relatively cheap then, but they aren’t so cheap now! Without having to fork out mountains of cash, you can still achieve the great 70’s Les Paul sound. The essential ingredients in the tone are: LP style guitar, lower output vintage-style humbuckers and an EL34 valve amp (non-master volume) with not too much gain.
Lets look at pickups first – on a Les Paul I like vintage style output humbuckers rather than high output, by vintage I mean typically a DC resistance reading of between 7 and 8 KOhms. A lower output pickup will have more treble and a clearer bass, the more wire you put into a pickup the lower the resonant peak and consequently, more mid-range and a squashed frequency range.
Lets now look at the Les Paul guitar design itself. Mahogany body, a maple cap; typically half an inch thick and a mahogany set-neck. On a Les Paul the neck to body joint is very solid with the non-cutaway side of the body making a lot of contact with the neck. This means more sustain, greater transfer of bass frequencies and a thicker overall tone.
Compare a Les Paul with and SG and you can hear the difference that more wood and more contact between neck and body makes. SG’s fitted with the same pickups as a Les Paul will sound more cutting, less bass, more upper midrange bite and more treble. Not bad but different.
The third element is the amp, if you listen to Paul Kossof’s guitar tone on ‘Alright Now’ there is a lot of clarity and not that much distortion at all. The amp tone is relatively clean with the distortion coming from the power valves rather than overdriving the pre-amp. You can hear each string separately and the sustain is from his fingers and guitar, not from the compression you get with a high output pickup and a high gain amp.
Common LP Quick Fixes
A couple of regular irritations with Les Pauls are strings sticking in the nut and getting the right string angle behind the bridge. The D and G strings are the usual culprits for sticking in the nut, this is because they have the most acute angle as they pass over the nut, the secret is to get the nut cut properly so that the strings pass over at the correct angle and that it is the right depth and width for the string gauge used. Pencil lead in the nut slots also helps.
Some Les Pauls have a deeper carve to the top than others, this means that if the stop bar tailpiece is screwed right down the strings will catch on the back of the bridge before they pass over the saddles. The way round this is to fit the strings so that they wrap over the tailpiece (this is how it was designed to be done originally) This method reduces the angle of the strings behind the bridge with the tailpiece screwed all the way down.