The Great Pretender

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The new Gibson Les Paul Billy Gibbons Goldtop Aged guitar is awfully nice — but at over nine thousand dollars, it’s also awfully expensive. How much of that Jesus-just-left-Chicago mojo can be summoned for one-sixth of that?

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The Gibson Studio 50’s Tribute Humbucker Satin Goldtop was meant to be an el-cheapo take on the 1957 Les Paul Goldtop. I had the chance to buy one for well under eight hundred bucks a few years ago and I immediately regretted having done so. The frets were sharp, the finish was legitimate vintage-style nitrocellulose but it was terribly uneven, and the uncovered Gibson 490/498 combination plugged into a one-piece circuit board instead of to traditional control wiring. It was pretty crappy, all things considered. It really only had one thing going for it: it was a real US-made Nashville Les Paul.

I came up with the idea of saving it from the trash heap of history and perhaps stabbing a few sacred cows in the process. The first thing was to have the frets rounded into playability, if not comfort. I then bought a set of Gibson “Burstbucker” pickups on the used market for $125 and wired them up to David Jones’ 50’s wiring kit and vintage Switchcraft toggle. At this point I had about a thousand dollars into it total.

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I then went into the basement and carefully uncased one of my Holy Grail guitars — the Gibson CC#1 Custom Shop 1959 Reissue. I set up a TASCAM recorder in front of a Heritage Patriot amp. Then I played the same pieces on both the $1000 Tribute and the $8500 Custom Shop guitar. They didn’t sound the same, to my immense relief. But when I put the test up on the Heritage Owners Forum, they almost universally guessed that the Tribute was the ’59 Reissue and vice versa, preferring the tone of the Franken-Lester to the real-deal reissue by a margin of something like sixteen to three.

You can imagine the relish with which I told everybody that they’d mistaken the cheap guitar for the expensive one.

At that point I put both guitars into their cases — the Reissue because I didn’t want to accidentally drop it and ruin a chunk of my net worth, and the Tribute because it still sucked to play thanks to sharp edges and frets everywhere.

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Earlier this year, I delivered the Tribute to my friend, Melody Burner builder Chris O’Dee, and asked him to make the thing comfortable and playable. One of his subcontractors was on-site to do some pinstriping, so we had him toss a Billy Gibbons style design on it. Chris then rounded everything off, sanded down the sharp edges, and generally put into playable condition.

The resulting guitar is nothing short of brilliant. It easily outplays a Goldtop Standard from Guitar Center and I doubt it’s very far away from the Gibson Custom Shop stuff. The quality of materials isn’t quite up to snuff — multi-piece back, baked-maple fretboard — but you could tour with this thing forever and the only thing that would annoy you would be the vintage-ish slippage of the Kluson tuners. It’s become the great guitar it was always meant to be.

I’m wondering if Chris should offer revamped Tributes as an addition to his hand-built guitar line. Say $1500 for something that plays and sounds and behaves like a proper Les Paul should. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy this one. From a distance, it might as well be Billy’s guitar. Too bad it will never sound like Billy’s guitar — not in my hands, anyway.

2 Replies to “The Great Pretender”

  1. Felis Concolor

    I enjoy encountering those occasions when what started as simple tinkering stumbles upon a magical combination of frugality and performance. Prior to the advent of truck cab optimized loudspeaker cabinets, I discovered the surprising qualities of a pair of low buck Jensen dual-cone drivers mounted in a fitted sheet of 3/8″ marine plywood, fastened via simple magnetic attraction behind a small pickup truck’s seat in an open baffle arrangement. That sub-$40 subwoofer outlasted the Datsun’s NAPS-Z engine and turned me into some sort of magical sound system wizard in the ears of passengers.

    It’s been over a decade since Car Craft’s writers looked around their shop, saw a pile of Mopar LA 360 parts which didn’t make the grade during various power builds a few years prior, put them together just to see what the misfits would do, and ended up with over 300 horsepower, torque in the mid-300s, and boasting a BSFC of 0.35 which is right down there in endurance racer territory and an especially significant achievement considering how poor the LA engines tend to be in the fuel consumption department.

    Congratulations on your winning mutt build; I’m not sure if a set of low impedance PAFs would make it even more desirable, but I can imagine it tweaking the noses of the internet bench racers. “Why’d you put those in that?!”

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  2. Domestic Hearse

    Unfortunately, a dressing, level and crown is pretty much necessary on everything but the super high-end instruments any more. It is absolutely unconscionable the way Guitar Center and other big-box guitar stores just unpack a $1000 guitar or bass, kinda half-ass tune them, call it good, then throw ’em up on display.

    In demo’ing a few instruments a couple years back, I had to ask the salesman to bring me a counter pad and tools so I could set up an American-made J-bass to make it half-way playable.

    I play everything unplugged first. I want to see how the instrument feels. If it’s alive and resonant or dead. Then, if I’m lucky enough to find a live instrument, I plug it into several different amps to get the tonal character. After that, I figure how much time my friend the luthier will have to put into the frets and neck, and if I’ll be spending a bunch on replacement pickups. Cuz anymore, you know both will probably be necessary.

    There once was a time Fender and Gibson built instruments that sounded great and played well right out of the box. My ’71 Fullerton-produced P-bass is an example. Everything about it is right. Sound, neck, weight. Finish is gloriously crazed with a million cracks. I could refinish it, but I like to say those cracks let the tone pour out.

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