This attractive Epiphone guitar laudably attempts to be the “high end of the low end”, but it ends up caught in a disappointing middle ground of uncertain value for the price.
Disclaimer: I am not a guitarist. I am barely a bassist. But over the past couple of years, as I’ve picked up the bass again, I’ve been dabbling a bit with guitar on my own while jamming with guitarist friends of some ability. So several dozen guitars have passed through my hands.
The 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard is probably the most famous and certainly the most sought-after electric guitar model ever. The topic of at least three books and subject of several lines of “reissues” over the years, original ’59 Les Pauls sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars when they’re available at all. Gibson’s most recent 2009 50th Anniversary reissue retails for more than $5,000.
Epiphone themselves didn’t produce a Les Paul style guitar in 1959, so this model isn’t technically a reissue. But Gibson deserves some credit for attempting to distill some of the ’59 LP mojo into their affordable, made-in-China brand. (You can read Gibson’s description of this guitar’s unique ’59-specific features here.)
This guitar is unlikely to be collectible. Sure, each is numbered from a series limited to 1,959 (mine is 223). And sure, 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1959 original. But this instrument is still just an Epiphone-branded copy of a Gibson original – with various corners cut to keep the price down.
So I didn’t buy the Epi ’59 LP to collect it. I bought it to play it (and paid nearly the full asking price of $899 from Sweetwater). I was especially excited about the neck shape, which the spec sheet says is the “1950′s [sic] Rounded ‘D’ profile”. The marketing copy waxes poetic, even if the author has trouble punctuating the possessive:
True to it’s [sic] heritage, the neck features an authentic, 1950′s [sic] rounded neck profile. Often referred to as “the baseball bat”, this neck feels beefy yet comfortable in your hands while adding warmth and sustain with it’s [sic] greater mass.
I love the neck on my friend Colin’s Gibson 2009 50th Anniversary Les Paul. Round, thick – yes, even warm – unlike any guitar’s I’ve ever played. I was willing to pay $900 for a guitar just to get that neck. But the neck on this Epiphone is noticeably flatter and overall slimmer than the thick neck of the “true” ’59 LP reissue. The Epiphone ’59 LP’s neck is rounder and fatter than my Gibson Les Paul Classic Custom’s (listed as “1960s Slim Taper”) or even my Epiphone Dot’s. It’s just not what I was expecting based on the description.
Build quality is generally excellent. No cosmetic flaws to be found. I’m not sure the flamed maple veneer top is quite AAA – maybe AA – but that’s subjective (and you can judge for yourself in the photo gallery below). I ordered the “Faded Cherryburst” finish, because I prefer the rimburst/perimeterburst pattern to the more authentic “teardrop” shape of the “Faded Ice Tea” finish [update: although early Gibson product shots showed the Iced Tea model with the more traditional teardrop pattern, reports from the wild imply that both finishes are in fact rimburst]. The Epiphone feels a touch plasticky compared to the Gibson 50th Anniversary version – perhaps a result of all the veneers used to mask the underlying cheap “mystery wood” – but overall it looks and feels like something in this price category should. Nice work by Epiphone.
The only outright build flaw is the neck pickup’s volume control, which functions essentially as a binary switch. From 6-10 it’s all the way loud, anything less it’s nearly silent. I would return it the store for adjustment if I had bought it locally – now I might ask a technician to fix it.
Otherwise I would say the guitar sounds pretty good, though it’s not a patch on either of the Gibson/Epiphone guitars mentioned above. I prefer my “real” Les Paul (a Classic Custom Silverburst from the now-defunct Guitar of the Week program – which sold for $2,400 new, I think) and even my Epiphone Dot (the Korean-made ES-335 clone easily available for $400). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to compare the sound to any other Epiphone Les Pauls. Unlike those, the ’59 is stocked with USA-made pickups, which in theory should get it closer to the classic Les Paul sound. They’re very true to character – nicely hot, distorted and grainy – you’re certainly not going to think you’re hearing a Strat. But a little trebly for my taste, less mid-range punch than my actual LP, and nowhere near as nice a ringing sound as my friend Rob’s stylistically comparable PRS (which, to be fair, sells for twice as much as the Epiphone).
So is the Epiphone Limited Edition “1959″ Les Paul Standard worth $900? Or even $800, which a 15% discount will get you from an online retailer like Musician’s Friend? On paper, yes. Relative to the typical Epiphone Les Paul, you get a flame veneer top, USA-made pickups, a nice rounded-top case, supposedly upgraded electronics, a few stylistic nods to the real ’59 (like green tuner pegs), numbered certificate from a limited edition run, and a deeper-set neck that may positively affect the sound. Not to mention that it’s significantly cheaper (and more attractive) than the least expensive American-made Les Paul.
But in practice, it’s not worth that price for me. I wanted a beefier ’59 neck profile. And if I have to compromise at all on the LP sound, I would go farther down the Epiphone line and get an Ultra-II – at least it also comes with a faux-acoustic pickup.
I’m on the fence about whether I’ll keep mine or return it. Though Sweetwater is nicely hands-on and full service on the sell side – this is how they try to head off discounting – their return policy is customer-unfriendly at best. You pay for return shipping, and then, unlike their competitors, they further deduct a fee for the “free” shipping they gave you on the way out. [Update: I decided to return the guitar. Though I'll likely stay a customer of Sweetwater's, given their return policy I'll stick to electronics or other items that don't vary much - very uncool for them to secretly charge a restocking fee and call it a non-refund for "free" shipping.]
Not only am I no guitarist, I’m no photographer. But I took some photos of this 2009 Epiphone Les Paul next to its Gibson big brother reissue. You can see the gallery below, though I recommend viewing them in full size directly on Flickr here.