Review: Epiphone Les Paul SL

The Epiphone Les Paul SL ($99 street) recalls Gibson’s original beginner guitar, the 1959 Melody Maker. Like that instrument, it features single-coil pickups and a jack mounted in the pickguard to save on production costs. Costs were also kept in check here by offering master Volume and Tone controls, rather than the mid-century model’s individual controls for each pickup. But Epiphone didn’t hold back where it counts. The SL has a mahogany neck, a rosewood fretboard, and a poplar body. And the setup and fretwork are excellent—this baby played quite nicely with no buzzes, fretting out, or rough fret edges.

Electronically, the ceramic-magnet pickups sound good, though the neck pickup is a little dark. Extra kudos for the smooth feeling pots, though, an oft-neglected area even in costlier guitars. The Volume pot tapered off smoothly without losing high-end, and the Tone control was very usable throughout its range. I could roll it back slightly to fatten the bridge pickup and give the neck pickup a jazzier sound, or way back for a distorted “woman tone.” Plugged into a Supro Comet, the SL proved a great pedal pusher through either a Tribute Audio Designs Big Fatty Fuzz or a Keeley Katana overdrive.

In keeping with early Melody Makers, the SL punches way above its weight class. Sure, it is an excellent beginner’s guitar, but it also begs pros to spiff it up with improved tuners, modify it with aftermarket humbucker or lipstick pickups, and/or use it as platform for all sorts of sonic experiments. Bottom line: the SL made me want to play it for hours, which, combined with its cool factor and bang for the buck, earns it an Editors’ Pick Award.

KUDOS Amazing price. Plays and sounds terrific.
CONCERNS Neck pickup is a little dark.

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