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  • Epiphone Les Paul Ultra-III

    Trad Meets Tech in an Affordable Package





    Welcome to a new Pro Review on Epiphone’s Les Paul Ultra-III!



    If you’re not familiar with how we do Pro Reviews, take a look at our FAQ and Forum Rules notice. Basically, a Pro Review is a cross between a standard review and a blog—a prepared article where posters can contribute, ask questions, and even determine the course of the review. Let’s dive in!







    Epiphone, if you don’t know already, is Gibson’s partner company with full and legitimate claim to produce all of Gibson’s models, including the Les Paul. The Epi Les Pauls are not made in the U.S., but they are subject to the same scrutiny, quality control, and pride that Gibson shows its American-made counterparts. The supreme upshot of this arrangement is that shoppers who don’t have bucks to burn get a dead-nuts on Les Paul for a fraction of the price.







    But Epiphone is more than just the frugal-man’s Gibson. Epi has established its own groove and momentum with the successful models it has launched in the past. One of those is the Les Paul Ultra series, with its lightweight chambered body, high-tech electronics, progressive design elements, and gorgeous good looks.



    The Ultra series has successfully dispelled the notion that one could only get a high-tech Les Paul from Gibson, and at a high cost. Now in its third iteration, the Les Paul Ultra-III is and the most evolved model yet, featuring updated magnetic and acoustic pickup technologies, USB connectivity, routing flexibility, an onboard tuner, and some choice upgrades to boot—all at an amazingly affordable price. The Ultra-III has everything you need for creating an entire gamut of guitar music—electric, acoustic, computer-driven, and anything in between.



    You can read about the Ultra II’s features by doing a search. The approach I’ll take is to review version III as if readers are unfamiliar with the II. Some features on the III are the same as on the II, some are upgraded, and some are brand new. But I’ll cover everything in detail so that you don’t need to skip back and forth to read up on, say, the choice of pickups. (Okay, just this once: Epi changed the magnetic pickups in the Ultra III to ProBuckers, which are closer to BurstBuckers than what the Ultra II had.)
    Jon Chappell
    Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
    Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

  • #2
    The Epiphone Les Paul Ultra-III features a chambered mahogany body with a gorgeous carved maple veneer top (not solid or carved, as the more expensive Gibby’s are) sporting a back belly scarf—a slight bevel that, along with the routed-out body, reduces weight and increases the comfort factor), a mahogany neck with a rosewood fingerboard, two ProBucker pickups, a three-way pickup switch, and four knob: two Volumes (one for each of the magnetics), a third Volume control for the acoustic pickup, and a Master Tone—which adjusts the tone of the entire pickup system (acoustic included), even though the acoustic pickup has separate “trim-style” controls on the back panel (more on that soon).







    The satin-finished D-shaped neck has a slim profile that makes it easy to grip down-the-neck barre chords and fly through fast single-note passages all up and down the neck. This contrasts with the high-gloss finish on more expensive Les Pauls, but I’ve never really preferred high-gloss to satin when it comes to necks. I’ve always found satin finishes more natural-feeling, and when you sweat a lot, a high-gloss can mess you up. Grover tuning machines and Epiphone’s Tune-o-matic/LockTone Stopbar system round out the hardware.







    The Ultra-III is available in four knock-out finishes: Midnight Sapphire, Vintage Sunburst, Faded Cherry Sunburst, and Midnight Ebony. The workmanship and attention to setup on my review unit was impeccable. I absolutely love my Midnight Ebony, as it has a cool, formal look, that still has an interesting grain pattern for the eye to follow. But I’ve people go gaga for the Midnight Sapphire finish, which someone described as a “pair of comfortable and well-worn blue jeans.” A nice metaphor, but the thing is drop-dead gorgeous. I predict the Midnight Sapphire will be Epi’s most popular Ultra-III.









    Despite expectations of receiving some kind of tricked-out axe (based on the spec and features lists), nothing on this guitar indicated there was anything extra technical about it. It looked just like any other sweet-looking Epi LP. Epiphone has taken great care to tuck all the tech discreetly in and amongst the existing controls of what appears to be a straight-on Les Paul. It’s only when you pick up the instrument and look really closely do you see where the innovations have been implemented.



    I get the biggest kick out of handing the Ultra-III to friends and wait to see how it takes them to spot the innovations.
    Jon Chappell
    Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
    Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

    Comment


    • #3
      In addition to sporting the classic pickup paradigm of two ProBuckers, the Ultra-III includes the NanoMag—a Shadow-manufactured, samarium-cobalt magnetic pickup positioned at the end of the fingerboard. It’s neatly enclosed by the neck binding and the neck pickup ring, so you don’t even notice its presence at first (unless you happen to be playing up in 20th position).



      The control four knobs are arrayed in the classic Les Paul configuration, but one of them is a three-way push switch that cycles among the three pickup modes: magnetic, NanoMag, and magnetic/ NanoMag combination.



      This means you can perform acoustic-sounding fingerstyle arpeggios for a song’s intro using the NanoMag, then lightly tap the knob/switch with your hand and commence ripping into your chugging ProBucker power-chord-driven riffs. Simple. In a nice touch, the knobs now include metal location pointers for easy eyeball referencing.







      On the side of the guitar is a beefy nickel-plated steel jackplate with two quarter-inch jacks. What’s nice about this scheme is that you use normal guitar cords to access either the combined signal (one cord) or split-path magnetic/ NanoMag signal (two cords). There’s also a USB jack here for plugging directly into a computer and recording via your favorite software. The Ultra-III includes Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 LE (via download). Plugging in the USB cable draws power from the computer, preserving the life of your onboard 9V.







      Here’s the hookup diagram from the manual that shows the three different hookup modes: two-cord (“stereo”), one cord (“mono”), and USB/Computer.







      Note that labels "Stereo" and "Mono" are a bit of a misnomer. "Stereo" here is really separate outputs for NanoMag and magnetic; "Mono" is a blend of the two sounds on one cord. Though the diagram shows the "Stereo" configuration using a mixer, a direct box, powered speaker, or acoustic combo amp could just as easily be employed to process the acoustic signal.





      Around back is the 9V battery compartment plus three controls for tweaking the NanoMag —Treble, Bass, and Gain. These are mostly set-and-forget: You use the Gain to match the NanoMag to the magnetics according to your taste, and tweak the tone controls for your base acoustic sound.



      You would then make any tonal adjustments in a live setting by using the Master Tone knob (around front), which governs both pickup systems. This is a great solution and an improvement over systems that don’t include tonal control of the NanoMag with the main Tone knob. Major points for this feature.







      Note the size and spacing of the three controls on the large backplate: These aren't the typical hard-to-tweak, dig-your-thumbnail trim knobs, but large enough to access on the fly, even with limited visibility (such as when you're performing). I could push the guitar ever so slightly to the right and make easy adjustments.



      The bass and treble are passive, so there's no center detent to demarcate the point of cut/boost. The calibration is quite smooth on pots and yielded usable musical results throughout their entire range
      Jon Chappell
      Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
      Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

      Comment


      • #4
        You’d never think a tuner could fit on the edge of a pickup ring, but the guys at Epi have done it.



        What’s amazing is that it can work so well within such narrow confines, using a line of labeled LEDs placed along the edge of the bridge pickup ring. The LEDs are quite bright (easily readable in both bright daylight and on a dark stage), and the layout is logical.



        The tuner is visible only to you the player; audience members—and even other bandmates—can’t see it. As an added bonus, a dedicated red ("A") and blue ("B") LED show your pickup configuration: NanoMag-only, NanoMag + magnetic, magnetic-only. I’ve never seen a better onboard tuner for design, compactness, and discretion.



        Here's a closeup of the tuner, where you can see the individual LEDs and the labeling:







        Now take a look at the medium shot, where you really have to focus in on the bridge pickup ring--even at this angle, which is out of sight of the audience--to see something there:



        Jon Chappell
        Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
        Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

        Comment


        • #5
          Hey, there's a great video put out by Epiphone that lists the features neatly and efficiently. I also like the sounds that the clinician, Bryan Auspey, gets out of the Ultra-III. We'll do our own sound tests in due time.






          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bn54VB33U3Y
          Jon Chappell
          Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
          Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

          Comment


          • #6
            Hey Jon - could you go into more detail on the USB? Specifically, is it class-compliant or do you need special drivers? Also, I'm assuming it carries whatever is at the output jack (i.e., the pickups you have selected, with your current volume and tone settings). Correct?



            Seems to me this would be a great option for re-amping. You could record the regular guitar sound through your amp and mic it, while simultaneously recording the dry sound from the guitar - kind of like "the ultimate DI."
            _____________________________________________
            There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

            Comment


            • #7
              Tonight, I'm going out to play at an open-mic/blues jam. In addition to blues, for which the jam nite is nominally titled, there will be a lot of classic rock tunes called, including Allman Bros., Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Chili Peppers, and Guns N' Roses. So I figure I'm in good shape if I show up with a Les Paul.



              Below is the setup I'm going to bring: mic stand, guitar, two amps, and a bag o' stomps. (No, I am not going to bring the upright piano in the background! ) The amps in this case are the Fishman Loudbox Artist (120 watts, which I'll use for the NanoMag/acoustic pickup) and the Line 6/Bogner DT50 212 (2 12AX7's, 2 EL34's, 2 Celestions V30s).



              I did a preliminary check of the overall output between the two amps, and it looks like the Fishman will keep up. When running in a two-amp blend, it turns out you don't need the acoustic sound to be quite as loud as the magnetic sound--the acoustic is just there for flavor. Acoustic icing on a humbucker cake, if you will.



              Jon Chappell
              Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
              Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

              Comment


              • #8






                Quote Originally Posted by Anderton
                View Post

                Hey Jon - could you go into more detail on the USB? Specifically, is it class-compliant or do you need special drivers? Also, I'm assuming it carries whatever is at the output jack (i.e., the pickups you have selected, with your current volume and tone settings). Correct?




                Easy question first: The USB signal carries, as you suspected, everything that appears at the audio output jack. That means the controls’ operation and the sound quality of the respective pickup systems are identical (or nearly so) when coming out of the USB jack (though a D/A conversion) as they are from the 1/4" jack straight through the monitors.



                The interface is not class-compliant, but the manual walks you through the driver-download routine, which is straightforward.



                Here’s the process: For PC users, you download and install the asio4all driver (a free, universal ASIO driver, developed by Michael Tippach, not specifically connected with Epiphone or Gibson), and the guitar then shows up as a PnP audio device in any audio software you have resident on your computer.



                Mac users have it even easier: they don’t have to install a driver first, but go straight to installing Guitar Rig 4 (see next section) and select the PnP device from the Application/Utilities/Audio MIDI Setup utility built into the Mac OS.



                As part of the package, Epi LP U-III owners are entitled to a copy of Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4, a leading amp/fx sim., available as a download with an access code. Once you download and install Guitar Rig 4, you simply select the LP U-III in the Audio and MIDI Settings tab. Easy as pie. You can now record digital audio through Guitar Rig 4, testing the myriad of amp and effects sims, or using the LP U-III to record digitally into a DAW of your choice. Even if you don't have a DAW, Guitar Rig 4 includes a Tapedeck module on which you can record (and through multiple instances of the tapedeck module, you can even overdub!).



                Of course, you don’t have to use Guitar Rig, if you don’t want to. If you’re running another DAW or amp/fx sim system, you’re free to use that too. The asio4all driver allows the LP U-III to be seen by any resident application. (The same is true on the Mac side.)



                Conversely, you don’t need to have the LP U-III connected to your computer use your copy of Guitar Rig 4. It’s available to you for use in any DAW as a plug-in (the installation provides AU, VST, and RTAS versions), whether the guitar is hooked up or not.



                A word about Guitar Rig 4: Although a discussion of Guitar Rig 4 is not strictly germane to the review of the LP U-III, it does speak well of Epiphone in choosing Guitar Rig. I own a lot of amp/fx sims., and they all have their strengths, but if I had to pick just one sim. that’s more for a guitar player than someone interested in doing a deep software dive, it would be Guitar Rig 4. It has a really well-rounded collection of effects and amp sims, and the interface is not only intuitive and logical, it’s gorgeous and a real pleasure to work with. Plus, there’s a live mode, which switches the view to a virtual pedalboard. And if you elect to hook up an outboard NI controller, you can operate the software modules physically—including volume and wah pedals.



                Following are two screen shots of Guitar Rig 4.



                This shot shows the effects in a rack metaphor (on the right side of the screen, with the signal flow going from top to bottom), and the Browser tab on the left, from which you select various rigs. As you can see, you can select by different criteria, including Styles, Songs, Effects, Products. etc. Once the presets are loaded, you can edit from there--swapping out modules, moving them around, and of course adjusting their individual parameters.







                Here's a shot showing selection by Components. Your choices are on the left, which you drag and drop to create your rack on the right. Here again, you can add, delete, or move modules around in the rack.







                Here’s a shot of WaveLab, Steinberg’s two-track recorder/editor, showing Guitar Rig 4 loaded up in the effects plug-in slots (see red circle), along with some of the other leading amp/fx sims underneath.





                WaveLab uses VST plug-ins (as does Cubase, SONAR, Live, and many other DAWs), but I tested this with Pro Tools (which uses RTAS), and Guitar Rig 4 worked fine. I plan to do the same on my MacBook Pro, to test the AU version, and I’ll holler if I encounter any problems.










                Seems to me this would be a great option for re-amping. You could record the regular guitar sound through your amp and mic it, while simultaneously recording the dry sound from the guitar - kind of like "the ultimate DI."



                Exactly. You can use the USB jack simultaneously with the audio jacks (one cord for a blend, or two cords sent to different destinations for individual processing). So if you're at home, there's really no reason NOT to record the dry sound via USB onto a DAW track, for later re-amping operations.



                What you really have then are three independent signal paths: 1) magnetic; 2) acoustic; and 3) digital audio for dry and/or VST processing. It should be noted you'll experience a slight delay (due to latency) from the USB path, but you can run it lower in volume and monitor primarily from the audio signals, and it should work out fine.
                Jon Chappell
                Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
                Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

                Comment


                • #9
                  Hey,



                  great review, really impressed



                  BUT, what I really want to know is how comfortable is it to play? I mean, is it too heavy? Could you comfortably stand up in front of an audience or in a studio and play it endlessly and not feel the strain?

                  All that tech that has been installed must add up in weight surely?

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Holy Moly!!! - I love it, and I think I need one ( I'm so out of touch on all this stuff), of course the grey one-- I would gladly trade my LP studio for one of these- very nice
                    90% of it is...half mental

                    1984 Peavey Stereo Chorus 400 with 1820 bottom
                    1973 Ampeg VT-22
                    Strat- LP Studio- Ovation- GR33 synth

                    tune it or die
                    and have a nice day!

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Super!!

                      Comment


                      • #12



                         

                        Quote Originally Posted by fergaluva View Post

                        Hey, great review, really impressed BUT, what I really want to know is how comfortable is it to play? I mean, is it too heavy? Could you comfortably stand up in front of an audience or in a studio and play it endlessly and not feel the strain? All that tech that has been installed must add up in weight surely?




                        Nope, not at all. The "tech" is all small componentry. The chambered body, and the body bevel have the greatest impact on the weight (in the negative direction, when compared to a standard Les Paul), and make this guitar a lightweight dream as I say in the opening posts.

                        Jon Chappell
                        Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
                        Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Hi. Thanks for the review.



                          I just wanted to ask if you encountered the often reported fret buzz issue that some of these guitars come with? It seems to be a feature in quite a number of reviews I've read.



                          If you did encounter it, how did you fix it? Was it bad enough to bother you?



                          From what I've heard, quality control is a problem with these Epiphones.



                          Regards



                          CW

                          Comment


                          • #14






                            Quote Originally Posted by CW0401
                            View Post

                            I just wanted to ask if you encountered the often reported fret buzz issue that some of these guitars come with? It seems to be a feature in quite a number of reviews I've read.




                            I too have heard these reports, and have a trusted friend who encountered a case of the upper frets (above the 12th) feeling gritty (unfinished) or fretting out on a string bend. But my unit had no such issues, which I was glad to see. By the way, I got my guitar not from Epiphone but from a retailer. It was "off the shelf" and not hand-picked, so no special care was taken to ensure that I got a "perfect" guitar. It was a random selection.



                            I would caution anyone buying any guitar to thoroughly check the playability, frets, intonation, and the joints (which is a common area where sloppy workmanship can manifest itself).



                            Epiphone brings this guitar to market for under $750, so you have to assume they're going to streamline the manufacturing process in some way. But if there's "nothing wrong" or if it takes just a slight adjustment to bring it up to snuff (guitars are designed to be set up in different ways to accommodate different string gauges and playability preferences), or even a return-shipping cycle (a necessary but worthwhile risk in buying sight-unseen, through Internet purchases) to get a model that doesn't have a flaw (real or perceived) that slipped through the QC process, it's well worth the effort.
                            Jon Chappell
                            Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
                            Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              I have been looking at used Brian Moore guitars. I think I just made up my mind on what I am getting. The only thing I am NOT hot on is the satin neck.
                              Good deals with - Yarbicus, CBH5150, BozzofAngels, Alvin Wilson, Harris Quinn

                              Oh, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

                              Comment



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