Still, I love some of Fender Custom Shop work, especially by master builder John Cruz. If you see any of his Teles, make sure to stop whatever it is you’re doing and try one out!
Also worth exploring are Tele copies from Fano, Schecter, ESP, and the LSL T-Bone.
3. Gibson Les Paul
Completing the trifecta of essential studio guitars is arguably the most iconic guitar in history, the Gibson Les Paul.
From Les Paul himself to Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page to Bob Marley, Duane Allman to Zakk Wylde, Pete Townshend to Slash, (even Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck at times) the Les Paul has shown its versatility time and time again.
The solid body Les Paul was first produced in 1952 but didn’t become popular until 1960.
In terms of sound, expect a lot of sustain and fullness blossoming out of the instrument. The classic mahogany neck and body with a maple top of a Les Paul create a rich, warm tone, and also make Les Pauls notoriously heavy—normally weighing between 7 and 10lbs.
This might be cumbersome if the guitarist is standing while playing during a long session, but most of the time it isn’t a problem. Occasionally, you will find even darker sounding Les Paul Customs, that are made entirely of mahogany, with no maple top to help add some “bite” to their tone.
If you are playing rock, you can never go wrong with a Les Paul Standard. For years, a Les Paul and a Marshall amplifier defined the sound of rock music. This was the classic combo of guitar and amp for players like Slash, Zakk Wylde, Randy Rhoads, Joe Perry and Steve Jones. Many bands are endorsed by guitar companies, but regardless of their brand commitments, they will “cheat” and use a Les Paul in the recording studio for rock guitar sounds, as it is one of the most recognizable tones in the world.
A real Les Paul can leave a kind of sonic identity on your music that makes people think “Oh this is a good guitar sound” because it is one of the most recorded guitars of all time, and one that we are well used to hearing.
Les Pauls work well for heavy rock and jazz due to their dark, warm and sustaining characteristics, but you might consider a Tele or a Strat instead if you are doing a lot of funky clean guitar parts, as Les Pauls may get too boomy in those scenarios.
They still do a great job with clean sounds, but a good rule of thumb is if you want the guitar to be more pronounced in the mix, use a beefy Les Paul and if you want it to fit well in a busier fuller mix, use a single coil Fender which will be more present and bright.
Slash (Guns N’ Roses)
Arguably the most famous Les Paul player of all time, Slash shows that the Les Paul is a mighty, majestic instrument— an instrument that calls for attention. In “November Rain,” listen to how the Les Paul works surprisingly well on a clean setting, starting at 1:23, and is able to blend well with Duff McKagan’s Precision Bass—a nearly magic combination for rock records. At 4:11, the first guitar solo kicks in and you can hear the ability of a Les Paul to stay rich and fat even at higher notes on the neck.
Guns N’ Roses – November Rain – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SbUC-UaAxE
Billy Gibbons (Z.Z. Top):
The king of cool and also one of the most iconic musicians in rock history (Notice something similar among Les Paul players?) often uses a Les Paul nicknamed “Pearly Gates” on stage and in the studio. In this live recording of “Tube Snake Boogie,” note how the Les Paul takes up a lot of frequency space and makes the modest three piece band sound huge.
Les Paul: How could one make a list, even a condensed one, of the most famous Les Paul players without putting Les Paul himself on the list? This recording of Les Paul live at the Iridium shows that even though he is playing with two other guitarists and an upright bass player, a Les Paul guitar can be bright and punchy, demanding attention even with other guitars in the mix.
Good: ESP LTD Eclipse EC-256FM ($399)
Before you laugh at this recommendation, please note that ESP does not just make METAL guitars. Yes, James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica rely heavily on their guitars, but this relatively affordable Eclipse guitar is one of the best Les Paul-style guitars available for under $1,000.
ESP does a great job with their fretwork, making string bends effortless, and the mahogany neck feels very comfortable. The pickups are not my favorite, but they are easily upgraded, and there is a coil-tap feature from the factory that allows you to split the humbuckers to get single coil jangle out of this guitar, sounding like a bassier Tele. A versatile instrument at an affordable price.
Better: Gibson Les Paul ’50s Tribute 2016 ($899-$1249)
This Les Paul sounds awesome thanks to a pair of 490R and 498T humbuckers. The “High Performance” version is a bit brighter in tone because of its metal nut, which lends the guitar a focused sound that helps it from sounding too boomy in most situations.
I’m not a fan of the G-Force automatic tuning system or the unusual adjustable titanium nut on this guitar, which I find to be unnecessary and impractical tools. However, the tapered fast-access neck heel on the High Performance version of this guitar makes it a real winner for me as it is equally comfortable in the higher and lower registers.
Best: Vigier G.V. Wood (Approx $4,000)