Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gear Review: Epiphone Les Paul Special

This probably won't be the last guitar I'll ever buy, but it's the last one I've bought so far. I got it "on sale" on Black Friday (Nov. 25) of 2011. Those Guitar Center scamps had the thing marked as $119 for several weeks, arranged like that one puppy at the pet shop right up front on the main aisle. Then, mere days before Black Friday--$109!

That made me think that maybe it wouldn't hurt to go look at it instead of walking by. I thought about that for a few days, not wanting to just impulse-buy a guitar I didn't really have the space for, even if it was on sale. But like many guitar players, I have Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. Fortunately, my GAS is mild and manageable and only has me buying the occasional instrument at a reasonable price.

Besides...won't hurt to just try it out a little. Plug it into an it. No wife or girlfriend to roll her eyes and scoff when I extoll its virtues--I don't have one with P-90 pickups, after all, and I don't have a Les Paul. The Les doesn't sound like my Stratocaster knock-off, my Peavey T-15, or the cheapie Tux. It really is about the sound, not about the color...though I didn't have a yellow guitar, either. And I'd never had a new one, just second-hand.

Off I went, visions of maybe bringing back a $109 bargain on that Black Friday. Everything was exactly as it had been when I got to Guitar Center...except that the GC scamps had put the price back up to $119. So much for that.

I picked it up, anyway, and took it over to a suitably big and loud-looking amp. Turned it up just loud enough to hear what I was doing, played around for maybe 40 minutes...and seriously considered putting it back on its stand and leaving, friendly puppy feeling or not. Then I considered trying out its sister guitar, identical in every way but the color--transparent cherry instead of transparent "TV Yellow", because  don't have a red guitar...There was a black one, too, but I've already got some. I played it some more, gradually deciding that I liked it enough to take it home.

There was only one thing wrong with the Les: the selector switch had a bad solder joint, so one of the pickups was dead. I could have made some noise about it, but I'd rather just fix things myself. Says something about Gibson/Epiphone's quality control, though. It only took a minute for me to solder the wire properly. Yeah, I shouldn't HAVE to fix a brand new guitar...but I'd rather fix it myself. Trust issues. My damn guitar.

So. Here's what I got:


More than the sound and the shape, I really REALLY like the feel of this guitar. The finish on the back of the neck is smooth enough that for the longest time while I was playing and getting used to it my fretting hand would overshoot. The only clear coat is on the back of the neck. The paint is flat yellow and shows off the body grain nicely.

The guitar's marketed as a "Special," Epiphone's entry-level Les Paul model:
--2 P90 single-coil "soap bar" pickups
--24-3/4" scale length
--mahogany body and neck
--rosewood fretboard
--bolt-on neck
--22 "Jumbo" frets
--single volume and tone controls
--low-mount 3-way selector switch
--flat translucent "aged" TV Yellow body & back of neck
--chrome hardware
--pearl inlay dots
--no pickguard
--rear access to electronics
--made in China
--single-piece wrap-around bridge; 2 height-adjustment screws, 2 intonation screws

There's a "Custom Shop" label on the back of the headstock, but apparently there's no such shop. Specials are made on the same line as any other Epi, just in smaller quantities. Heh.

Very good balance. The neck stays where you leave it, unlike that aggravating "Tux" which won't stay put. The mahogany feels solid without being heavy--lighter than a maple, heavier than poplar.

The P90s are very loud and bright, but they mellow out nicely when the volume is rolled off. It sounds best straight into an amp. Doesn't seem to like effects processors like the Zoom 505 or Digitech RP100, which both come off harsh. Through my Crate amp, I brought out a damn good and passable Alice In Chains sound--"Rooster" sounds amazing, even with my hackery. Surprised myself, there.

For all the good feel and comfort, though, this guitar kicked my ass. I had to work to play songs I was used to getting through without effort. Three years later, I still haven't figured out why I had so much trouble. With that Gibson-style 24-3/4" scale length, it's not strung nearly as tightly as my Strat copy or the Tux (both with 25-1/2" scales) and should be slightly tighter than the Peavey T-15 (23-3/4"). I went from wondering whether there was something wrong with the guitar to wondering whether I'd had a stroke or something. I even set it aside and played one or another of my other axes for awhile to keep my morale up.

Maybe it was the working out on the Strat copy and heavy strings, but we worked out our differences after a few months. All the other guitars are hanging out of the way and the little Les Paul is always within grabbing distance.

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