Nothing screams rock quite like a Les Paul. In fact, you could say it wails. From Jimmy Page to Slash, the guitar has been instrumental in shaping the sounds of rock and popular music since its release in 1953. But when it comes to Les Pauls, there are a lot of options and one of the biggest decisions a prospective buyer has to make is weighing up the differences between the Epiphone Les Paul vs Gibson Les Paul.
The Les Paul is a legend of rock, but those looking into buying one have a big decision to make. So, Epiphone Les Paul vs Gibson Les Paul, what’s the difference?
Gibson and Epiphone are both amongst the oldest of all guitar brands and for a good stint of their history the two were staunch competitors. A little-known fun fact is that Les Paul himself created his prototype design, ‘The Log’ after hours in Epiphone’s New York plant. He then went on to work on his design with Gibson in 1951, before the famed guitar’s release two years later.
In 1957 Gibson won the duel between the two guitar giants and bought out Epiphone with the intention of broadening distribution and expanding overseas. Gibson actually used the same parts and the same factory for Epiphone guitars until the 1970s, when manufacturing was moved to Japan.
Most see Epiphone simply as Gibson’s budget brand. An imported, inexpensive, entry-level version of it’s bigger brother. But is it that simple? Like most brands, build quality hasn’t always been so consistent over the years and individual guitars always vary.
Construction of the Les Paul
All solid body Gibson guitars are constructed in Gibson’s Nashville, Tennessee factory in the US. Epiphone guitars have varied in their construction over the years, however, they are currently made in China, Indonesia and Korea. If you want to check where an Epiphone has come from you can always trace it by the serial number.
If you hold each Les Paul in a shop, you’ll notice that both are heavy guitars. This contributes to the Les Paul’s fabled sustain, but if you compare the two, the Gibson will always be heavier, due to the higher density of the hardwood used and its thicker body.
You’ll probably see a difference in the visual quality, particularly in the grain of the wood and the inlays of the neck. Gibsons are usually a lot prettier on this front, especially when compared to a low-end Epiphone, however, the difference might seem less pronounced when compared with a high-end model. In terms of coating, Gibsons are finished with a gloss nitrocellulose lacquer, while Epiphones use a poly finish.
Despite each Les Paul looking very similar at first glance, the first difference you’ll notice is the headstock. Not just the fact that the logo is different, it’s a different shape. Both have a winged shape, but the Epiphone is more rounded in the middle and the Gibson kicks up at the sides a bit. I’m not saying that this directly affects the guitar’s sound and if it did that would be a hell of a tone-freak conspiracy.
Despite coming from different factories Gibson and Epiphone Les Pauls both use similar combinations of wood in their design. The general formula is a mahogany neck, set into a mahogany body with a maple top. Epiphpones have a thinner maple top, usually with a veneer while in a Gibson you get a thicker maple top and usually higher quality mahogany in the neck and body.
Gibson and Epiphone both make use of rosewood for their fretboards, however, Gibsons are also inclined to use ebony and over the years have experimented with other types of wood, including baked maple, granadillo and poplar. Like their bodies, Epiphones usually, use lower grade wood in their fretboard, with Pau Ferro used in the 2019 Standard model.
It’s important to note that although both companies use similar woods, it doesn’t mean that it’s of the same grade, and often there are many species of a particular tree.
Gibsons usually feature ‘Burstbucker’ humbucker pickups, which is what you’ll find in the 2019 Standard model. Epiphones use various pickups throughout their range that are generally of a lower standard than Gibson’s. Despite this, the Epiphone Pro series uses ‘ProBucker’ pickups, which are a big improvement in quality over lesser models. The 2019 Standard uses decent ‘Alnico Classic Pickups’.
On the hardware front, Gibson currently uses aluminium for its ‘Tune-O-Matic’ bridges, while in the past it used an alloy called Zamak. Epiphone uses similar materials, but generally of lower quality. The current Standard model employs nickel on this front.
Despite this, many new Epiphones offer a unique locking bridge and over the years some Gibsons have suffered in this department. The lower end M2 and S-Series, are to look out for, as well as models fitted with the ‘Lightening Bar’ bridge which has prompted many owners to seek an upgrade.
Gibson uses a graphite-like material called ‘tektoid’, and other metals for its nuts, where Epiphone uses plastic composites. Tuners have varied greatly over the years and at times each has used hardware from other brands, namely Grover, as well as in house gear. Epiphone at times has used unbranded tuners with questionable quality.
Higher end Gibsons use titanium in their saddles, while lower end Gibsons and Epiphones use varying metals. At the end of the day, costly metals like titanium are always going to make the end product more expensive.
Can You Hear A Difference?
So what’s the result of the difference in components? Well, due to the quality of wood and electronics Epiphones generally lack the definition in sound of their more expensive stablemates. Many people cite a slightly woofier low end and less pronounced highs.
One of the main reasons people go for a Les Paul is for their resonance. As mentioned it’s a juicy sustain, a beautiful ring that you can even hear when the guitar is unplugged. Both Les Pauls shine here, it comes down to the solid wood and the inset neck and you could say that sustain is built into the design. In a lot cases, an Epiphone Les Paul will have more resonance than many guitars that are way more expensive, maybe just not a Gibson Les Paul.
The difference in thickness of wood, pickups and material, although may seem minor, all add up at the end of the day. But is it a $2000 difference? That’s your choice to make. Also consider that if you use a lot of pedals, or you don’t have a half decent valve amp, the distinction will probably be a lot harder to pick.
As with most makes of guitar, there are numerous specifications of both Gibson and Epiphone Les Pauls and naming them all would be pointless and likely take all day. But here’s the gist. ‘Studio’ and ‘Special’, sit on the lower end, before the ‘Standard’ which is generally the benchmark model. ‘Custom’ models are variable, but often incorporate higher quality components. ‘Signature’ models are based on those played by famous artists and are often more expensive as a result.
Models like the Studio or LP-100 are great entry level Epiphones and are pretty much made to be universally affordable. They’re good for beginners, who still want that high gain humbucker sound but their components aren’t as good as better models. You may notice cheaper looking finishes and higher action.
Epiphone’s more expensive models, such as the Les Paul Ultra III actually use a lot of very decent components and will always offer a price cut over a Gibson, making them pretty viable options for intermediate players.
Interestingly, you don’t have to part with $4000 for a Les Paul Standard to get a Gibson. There are options like the Studio Faded series and the Tribute line, which are still American made, but are more affordable due to a few cost-cutting measures.
The Big Decision
When it comes time to make the big decision, your verdict shouldn’t come down to the logo on the headstock. If you know a friendly guitar shop owner with a lot of patience, play both (just don’t play Stairway to Heaven).
Can you notice the difference? Also, you’ve got to weigh up your skill level. Good music doesn’t sound good because the musicians used expensive gear, the expensive gear sounds good because it’s used by good musicians. A novice player won’t become a shredder just by forking out for a Gibson.
Also, you need to consider that not all Les Pauls are born equal. They’re made from wood, a natural material that will always have variations and imperfections, despite the quality checks performed by manufacturers. There’s dud Gibsons out there and you’ll find Epiphones that punch well above their weight, making them an awesome bargain.
Don’t ignore the second-hand market, but if you go down that route be sure to do your research so you don’t get low-quality year model, such as a patch of Gibsons in the ’70s.
Epiphones are great if you’re a beginner or a hobbyist, or if you just can’t justify the spend of the Gibson. Or maybe you already have a Gibson, but don’t want it getting damaged at gigs. A Gibson is the go if you’re a professional, or you’ve had an Epiphone for years and it’s time to upgrade. It could also be a good decision from an investment standpoint, or maybe you just scored an inheritance.
When it comes to picking an instrument, keep an open mind and don’t worry about the snobs and elitists. If you want something decent, but don’t want to fork out the price of a used Honda Civic, it’s worth looking at a few comparable models from each company. But if you’ve got the money to fork out for a Gibson, I’m sure you won’t regret the decision. Both instruments are great and there are strong points for both, so play a bunch and find the one that sings the sweetest to you.