A retro-modern mix of classic style and hot tone
By Ryan Conrad
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
The Custom. The Black Beauty. The Fretless Wonder. While it has had many different names over the years, one thing about the Gibson Les Paul Custom has never changed—it is the sovereign ruler of the Les Paul kingdom. The Les Paul Custom was born in 1954, robed in elegant black and gold with multilayer binding and luminescent mother-of-pearl, earning it the “Black Beauty” nickname. Its fast, low, and tight action combined with small frets delivered unprecedented playability, spawning the “Fretless Wonder” moniker. During its development in the early ’50s, the still-new art of electric guitar craftsmanship reached a high watermark that remains today.
Custom-made to be played
While the Custom was designed by Les Paul and Ted McCarty to be a deluxe model, it wasn’t meant to be a mere showpiece guitar. Les Paul was a serious guitarist, Gibson was a serious guitar company, and the Custom was a serious guitar. It was crafted to be the absolute best solidbody electric guitar available without regard to cost or trends. That’s why players as diverse as Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, The Edge, Peter Frampton, James Hetfield, Adam Jones, Alex Lifeson, John McLaughlin, Zakk Wylde, Keith Richards, and—of course—Les Paul, could all pick up a Custom and make amazing music.
The ’54 Custom was the first solidbody Gibson guitar to use the ABR-1 bridge in the now-familiar separate bridge-and-tailpiece setup, dramatically increasing the sustain and intonation accuracy. It also featured a new pickup, the Alnico V pickup at the neck in combination with a standard P-90 at the bridge. Over the years the pickup complement changed, moving from the soapbar pickups to an unprecedented triple-humbucker array in ’57. Double-humbucker Customs were somewhat sporadically produced along with the three-pickup model, but didn’t enter standard production until much later.
Updated and rejuvenated
Production of the modern version of the Les Paul Custom was recently moved —somewhat appropriately, I think you’ll agree—to the Gibson Custom Shop. Gibson offers a Custom-inspired axe from its standard production line in the Les Paul Classic Custom guitar, which is a Classic that cops the vibe of a Custom with a black finish and gold hardware. But the contemporary Les Paul Custom is now being made alongside the historic reissue model Customs, such as the ’54 Custom and the ’57 Custom.
Unlike the vintage models, the modern Custom has evolved a bit under its skin, which is now available in white, wine red, and cherry sunburst, in addition to the original black. Instead of an all-mahogany body, today’s Custom has a maple cap like the Les Paul Standard. The body has also been weight-relieved, so you can play all night without getting “guitar shoulder.” The pickups aren’t vintage-wound “Patent Applied For”-style humbuckers, but hot and spicy alnico 490 neck and 498 bridge pickups that deliver lots of bite and throaty roar. Instead of tiny frets, the modern Custom has standard medium frets. The neck profile is different too, with a smooth and fast rounded profile that’s slimmer than the meaty early ’50s profile the historic reissue Customs sport. You can think of it as the Custom that Les and Ted might have designed if they were doing it today.
Walking the talk
The Custom I received for this review was an absolutely gorgeous guitar, just as inspiring to look at as it was to play. Finished in flawless traditional inky black lacquer buffed smooth and shiny, its gold hardware and luxurious inlay and binding gave it plenty of sexy appeal. Tuners, knobs, pickups, and pickguard were all adjusted perfectly, and the action was spot-on as well. The G and high E strings were the only hitch in this parade, as both strings had a slight catch when tuning. After applying a little graphite and retuning, the drag disappeared and everything was right as rain.
Historic Gibson advertisements touted the Les Paul Custom as having “power, greater sustaining and a clear, resonant sparkling tone, with the widest range of tonal colorings.” I really couldn’t have said it better myself. I can easily say this Custom had more sustain than any axe I’ve ever slung across my shoulders. Without any coaxing, notes rang out and hung in the air forever. When I milked it a bit . . . well, I’m not sure exactly how long it sustained because I honestly got bored and gave up—but it was a lot of sustain, trust me.
I never got bored while actually playing the Custom, though. Tone this rich has a way of keeping your attention and making hours disappear pretty quickly. While it definitely had a wide array of sounds available, the alnico 490R and 498T pickups really like to rock. The naturally thick, midrange-heavy tone had a nice crunchy bite that sounded great through a Fender Deluxe Reverb and positively jaw-dropping through a Marshall JCM 800 half-stack. Rolling back the volume about halfway left me with some excellent clear and clean tones for strumming open chords. The comfortable rounded neck profile felt great even after playing for hours, and the low, tight action and mirror-finished frets played easy.
I found the Custom was worthy of pretty much every positive adjective I’ve heard used to describe it, delivering tones from sublime to scorching and looking stunning while doing it. Speaking of stunning looks, the Custom Shop recently released two limited edition versions of the Custom that deserve some time in the spotlight. First up is a 1968 Antique Pelham Blue Custom with the more vintage-sounding ’57 Classic pickups as well as a specially chambered body to enhance sustain and make it more comfortable to play for long stretches. The other special-edition Custom is one we’re calling “The Natural.” It is a limited reissue of a super-rare ’70s Custom that had a natural-finished maple top on a mahogany body and a maple fingerboard on a mahogany neck.
I can safely say the Les Paul Custom is in good hands at the Gibson Custom Shop, and this modern version of Black Beauty is an outstanding guitar, no matter what color it’s dressed up in.
Features & Specs
- One-piece mahogany neck
- Carved maple top
- Weight-relieved mahogany body
- Ebony fingerboard
- Pearl block inlays
- Multi-ply binding
- Gold hardware
- 490R and 498T alnico humbuckers
- Tune-O-Matic bridge with stopbar tailpiece
- Body, neck, and headstock binding
- Includes Gibson Custom Shop hardshell case