Epiphone Les Paul Custom (or is it?)

I got this Epi LP Custom off eBay very cheap. It was very cheap because it had a bad headstock break (ie snapped), and associated damage due to the truss rod coming out through the back of the neck (I did know about all this). Also it had obviously broken in this area before, and had been ‘repaired’.

Anyway, I fixed all that, getting the peghead to neck alignment right, correct nut to first fret distance, and a good playing surface for the thumb on the back of the neck. Luckily the rosewood fingerboard had lifted rather than splintering, and the breaks in the neck bindings spliced back together ok. It is by no means an invisible neck repair though, some glue filled cracks on the back can still be seen through the neck’s new nitro finish. First fret had lifted some so it was glued and re-pressed, and all the frets leveled and dressed (from the divots extending to the eighth fret deep enough to catch strings the guitar had obviously seen a fair bit of play). Critical to a repair of this nature is whether the truss rod will then function correctly; to this end the nut was cleared of previous glue and corrosion, lubricated and given a good substantial washer to bear against, and after some freeing up it gave a good range of adjustment: I was able to get a dead straight and level neck when strung up to pitch, boding well for a good action being possible.

Then I checked out the electronics. They were trash, the lowest grade tiny pots I’ve ever seen complete with spinning knobs and unidentifiable little green tone caps like from a cheap radio, a flimsy intermittent jack plug (at least it was still connected, given the minimal amount of dry solder on everything), and seized up cheap pickup toggle switch with missing tip. The pickups themselves did work, but were very indistinct sounding, one dimensional with no real string definition.

The hardware had issues too. I couldn’t get the intonation set correctly at the bridge because of its narrow adjustment range (manufacturing casting flash interfering with the adjustment screws), and the stop tail piece was a massive cast thing probably sucking all the resonance. The tuners were sloppy.

With all this, I wondered if the guitar was a counterfeit copy (supposedly it had been made for Gibson by the Samick factory in Korea in the early ’90s, though I’ve been unable to exactly verify the serial number it has). Certainly there are fakes of these about, and the more recent Epis I have looked at definitely do use better quality parts. Strangely though, the actual wood looked to be of ok quality, nice mahogany for the neck, and while not also mahogany like a proper LP Custom, a decent firm basswood for the body (albeit a pancake of several pieces, with a veneer of another wood instead of a top cap). I had been half expecting to find some kind of plywood in there… Body and neck were all machined well, and standard of all the binding was ok too. Paint and poly lacquer not overly thick. Dimensionally it is reasonably accurate to the original Gibson LP shape, except the common incorrect control cavity rout (which I had to relieve in places for the larger pots I installed) and pot positioning discrepancy. It has quite a nice top carve shape. The neck tenon is not long, but it’s not too short either, and the neck is set well. Weight turned out at 9.5 lbs fully set up.

So I fixed the hardware issues with locking tuners, a ’59 LP spec aluminium stoptail (gold was out of stock so it’s nickel finish), and a wide adjustment bridge. Carved a new bone nut for 9’s to replace the nylon one on which both E strings’ alignment was off relative to the neck sides (and which had anyway been mostly painted black during its previous life). I strung up and got intonation set to reliably within a few cents, and there was good loud acoustic resonance, with a nice growly sustain from the neck. Put in a proper jack, switch and wiring, and finished her off with a set of Seymour Duncan P Rail pickups, some decent 500k pots and a couple of old Sprague 0.047uF bumble bee tone caps (actually they both tested out at 0.055uF but the guitar doesn’t sound too dark with these values). I used grounded shield wiring on the long runs between pickup selector switch and output jack, and although the P Rails individually are not hum-cancelling (except for humbucker mode obviously) it isn’t especially noisy. The modern Gibson wiring scheme has been followed, for its tone control stability (rather than the so-called ’50s wiring, where the tone circuits are on the output side of the volume controls).

The two tone pots have pull switches incorporated, to set up various winding combinations the P Rail pickups are capable of. So now she can get P90, single coil and humbucker (either series or parallel coil combination) sounds; having these four sounds makes this a flexible guitar ideal for testing out amps. She’s not just a hack guitar tool though, I think the P90 sound is just fabulous, the perfect balance between single coil wirey clarity and humbucker thickness (like they say about the original P90s, “fat”), and it can push most amps well without making them sound muddy. The humbucker sound is good too, with the parallel connection plausibly in the PAF arena (though I’ve only heard them on recordings); the series connection gives a higher (though by no means extreme) output humbucker setup. Though for traditionalists the single coil aspect maybe wouldn’t really suit the guitar’s build and feel (heavier woods, shorter scale), it is quite a good Stratty sound, and no more of a compromise really than the more traditional ‘bucker coil splitting arrangements, and quite good enough for my testing purposes. (For closer to Telecaster sounds, it’s suggested to re-orientate the pickups so as to put the single coil blade pole pieces closest to bridge and neck – an easy flip, as of course tone doesn’t care about the SD logo appearance!)

There are more complex wiring/switching schemas possible, to allow combinations of different pickup type at neck and bridge, eg a humbucker and a P90 together, but beyond the scope of my needs with this guitar. Wiring these pickups in isn’t too difficult; to be honest the biggest challenge is to resolve havering over which sounds and combinations to have, and how to accommodate the resulting switching requirements in a practical way to suit player and guitar. Anyway, I’ve found they’re pickups that are definitely one of those gear purchases where you still go “well, alright” three months later, which is rare enough.

So I guess it can be surprising just how good properly fixed-up older cheap guitars – even knackered ones (and they’re way the cheapest) – can be. Sure, I had to replace a lot, but I’m looking on the bright side – it’s all now well-seasoned wood (atmospheric conditions, or in a case or out, doesn’t affect its tuning/intonation at all), and I was able to re-use some of the parts at least; pickup mounting rings, covers for control cavity, switch and truss rod nut, and the pick guard all got a new lease of life, plus some of the small screws – though of course most of the holes they went in were well stripped out…