What Makes a Les Paul Traditional Guitar “Traditional”?
To quote Talking Heads, "same as it ever was"...but why?
by Craig Anderton
(Editor’s note: Harmony Central’s offices are located about 300 feet away from the Gibson USA factory, so when the 2017 guitars were introduced, we just had to check them out. But luckily, we were able to hold on to them and in the process, found out there are considerable differences among them. So, rather than “review” them in the traditional sense, we thought it would be helpful to analyze what the differences are so the HC community would have an idea of what goes on “under the hood” with not just these guitars, but guitars in general. This first article is about the Les Paul Traditional model, and what elements make it “traditional.”)
Although Gibson is known for both classic guitars and high-tech guitars, the most traditional of the 2017 models is the Les Paul Traditional from the T series of guitars—it’s designed specifically to retain those elements of the classic Gibson USA guitars of yesteryear. But what does “traditional” mean, exactly? Here are the specifics.
Orange Drop tone capacitors. These capacitors, introduced in the 60s, heralded the capacitors of the modern era—stability, resistance to temperature variation, minimum microphonics, and other desirable characteristics. Since then many other brands of precision capacitors have become available, but there’s something about those Orange Drop capacitors that evoke memories of a different era—and which some players swear have better tone.
Hand-wired, point-to-point electronics. Modern Gibsons use circuit boards for the electronics, which provide greater consistency, easier repair, and help to reduce production costs. Hand-wired electronics recall the days of sitting at a bench, soldering iron in hand, and making the connections among all the guitar’s components. However, there is a practical advantage to point-to-point wiring: it's easier to mod if you want to experiment with different tone control capacitors or potentiometer values. In addition, some people feel that the more “open” control cavity creates a subtle sonic improvement.
Nickel-plated bridge. Bridges influence tone, and while some players prefer the brighter sound some bridges provide, nickel-plated hardware has a balanced sound that’s characteristic of vintage guitars. It also has a more vintage “look.”
Nylon nut. Today’s nuts are made from various materials—ceramic, titanium, etc.—each with its own subtle sonic qualities. A nylon nut is a more traditional choice, and like the nickel-plated bridge, has its own sonic signature.
Knobs. Knobs have changed a lot over the years. Gibson has used different knobs for different purposes; for example, a push-pull knob that changes pickup switching is designed for pulling as well as rotating. For the Traditional model, Gibson went back to the knobs you first saw when Eric Clapton or Mike Bloomfield were playing their Les Pauls: a “top hat” shape and golden color that were radically different from other guitar knobs of that era, and featured small metal pointers.
No weight relief. The original Les Paul was solid wood—great for sustain, but the weight meant it wasn’t so great for jumping around like a maniac on stage over a three-hour set. Gibson now offers a variety of models with different degrees of weight relief, which can have the side benefit of giving a bit more of a resonant quality. But for those who want the thick, sustaining sound of solid wood…well, that’s another traditional element.
“Chunky” neck. Not everyone has the same hands, so there’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” neck. The original Les Paul was born before the era of slim necks, and there’s still something satisfying about wrapping your hand around a full-size, solid neck. Of course for those with larger hands, it definitely has the right “feel,” and some find the tone “warmer” than slimmer necks.
Burstbucker 1 (neck) and Burstbucker 2 (bridge) pickups. These are the antithesis of modern, ultra-hot pickups. With their lower output level, they have a lot in common with the pickups of the 50s and early 60s, which helps explain the more traditional tone quality.
Original “leaf”-style pickup toggle switch. The HP line of guitars has a toggle switch that’s quieter than leaf-style switches, more reliable, and has a smooth switch travel; the old leaf switches had a certain “springy” feel when you switched pickups. If your guitar-playing muscle memory is used to that feel, the switch on the Traditional model is what you’d expect.
No pickguard necessary. Back in the day, pickguards were sometimes seen as something that worked against the guitar’s aesthetics. Admittedly there are advantages to pickguards, but there’s also something to be said for seeing the guitar’s fully figured top in all its glory—so the Traditional can be pickguard-free (although one is included in the guitar's case if you do want a pickguard).
Manual tuners. There are a lot of tuners, but these Gibson Deluxe models were chosen for their vintage look and feel, not only their ability to hold tuning well.
Of course, the Traditional incorporates more modern elements. The guitars undergo the PLEK setup process, which dresses the fret and neck as part of the factory setup procedure. And while the humbucker pickups follow the original design ethic (and more importantly, the PAF-type tone), production is more consistent so you don’t end up with variations in tone among different guitars.
Playing the Les Paul Traditional model is like taking a step back into history. I have to say that I’m more of an HP guitar kinda guy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate being able to pick up a Traditional and find myself transported back to the days when I could never have afforded a Les Paul, and I’d sneak into guitar shops as often as I could to play one. That feel and vibe still exists…even if the guitar shops are long gone.
- HC -
Visit the rest of the series on the 2017 Gibson Guitars:
For more information on the Gibson Les Paul Traditional please visit Gibson.com
Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.