A proper Gibson Les Paul will set you back THOUSANDS of dollars. They’re great guitars sure, some of the best on the market. But is a Gibson Les Paul worth all that money? Let’s find out…
Everybody knows the Gibson Les Paul. Whether a Custom, Junior, or a Standard, Gibson’s Les Paul has been a constant presence in music since the 1950s. Jimmy Page used one. Slash uses them. Buzz Osbourne and Adam Jones use them. Basically, in ALL eras of music, the Les Paul has been front and center. And not just in rock music either.
Made in the USA, Gibson guitars – like Fender – are the most iconic, the most well-known and instantly recognized guitars on the planet. Fender has its Strat, and Gibson has its Les Paul. Both are excellent. But they’re also completely different with respect to tone and how they look and play. The Les Paul sounds darker and has more bass, for instance, whereas a traditional Strat sounds lighter and twangier.
I could do an entire article on the differences between a Strat and a Les Paul. But for the sake of brevity, in this post, we’re just going to be looking at Gibson’s Les Paul. We’re going to explore why it is so loved, why they are so expensive, and, finally, discuss whether buying one is worth it or not (spoiler: they are, but it depends entirely on context/money/ability/commitment).
6 Reasons Why Are Gibson Les Paul Guitars So Expensive?
Gibson Guitars Are Made In The USA
The main reason why Gibson guitars – like the Les Paul – are so expensive is that they’re made in the USA. Gibson has three factories located in the USA and it pays its workers good wages. This, in turn, has to be factored into the cost of the guitar. Overseas labor – in places like China – is a lot cheaper, so the cost of guitars made there is lower.
The Brand Name Factor
Beyond this, you have higher levels of quality control on Gibson guitars. They’re made to exacting standards by craftsmen that live and breathe guitar. You’re also paying for the Gibson brand name as well. It has a legacy all of its own, born from the fact that ALL the greats, from the 1950s to today, tend to use Gibson guitars (or Fender). This includes Jimmy Page, Adam Jones, Matt Pike, Peter Frampton, and Tony Iommi.
The Types of Wood & Overall Finish
One of the main costs in making a guitar, save for the labor, is the type of wood used to construct it. Gibson uses high-quality, rare woods like mahogany, rosewood, ebony, and maple. These types of wood are protected by strict legislation in the USA and because Gibson is located in the USA, it has to adhere to these laws and regulations.
Guitar companies based outside the USA, or that have their manufacturing located outside the USA, are not limited by these laws and regulations, so they can acquire the woods required to build guitars for less money. Or, they just use completely different types of wood – something Gibson would never do.
Scarcity is one of the biggest economic factors that denotes “value” – if something is rare, it is valuable. This is why gold and diamonds are worth something and your college degree are not. This is why vintage Gibson guitars can go for prices exceeding $20,000; they’re rare, highly sought after, and they sound different (better) than a $200 copy.
And then we have the way Gibson finishes its guitars. It uses something called nitrocellulose and regulation in the USA dictates that you can only just a set amount of this type of lacquer over a period of 12 months. Again, this dictates how many guitars Gibson can make. Fewer guitars mean scarcity and, as we learned above, scarcity equates to higher value perception. This is why other brands now use alternatives like urethane or polyurethane to finish their guitars.
Advanced Quality Control Costs Money
If you spend $2000+ on a guitar, like the Gibson Les Paul Standard or the Gibson SG, you’ll want to be confident that it holds its tune, plays wonderfully, and doesn’t have any issues. In order to make sure ALL of its guitars work perfectly, Gibson invests millions in its quality control process. It even has a special machine called the Plek machine.
Plek machines cost an ungodly amount of money. But they serve an integral part of Gibson’s quality control process. When a guitar is complete, it is put in the Plek machine and tested. The Plek machine scans the guitar, checks the fretboard for irregularities, ensures the frets are leveled properly, and that the guitar – when under tension – works perfectly. And it can spot issues with an accuracy of one-thousandth of a millimeter.
The Plek machine, once it has completed its tests, will then proceed to create a bespoke nut that is custom to each guitar it tests. The nut design and implementation are based on the unique readings it gathered from scanning the neck of the guitar and how it operates under tension. Obviously, these Plek machines are VERY expensive and sophisticated, so the cost of using and maintaining them has to be added to the RRP of the guitar.
The upshot of this is that when you use a Gibson guitar, you can rest assured that there will be zero issues with how it plays and sounds. Gibson’s QC is next-level. This is why its guitars are used to record and play live by professionals. They’re just more reliable than other, cheaper brands like Epiphone, Harley Benton, and Tokai. And they’re more reliable because Gibson invests millions in its quality control process every year.
Many Parts Are Hand-Made And Hand-Finished
Because players expect a certain sound from Gibson guitars, a sound that has evolved since the 1950s, Gibson is tied to certain production protocols. It cannot change anything too much because this would impact the sound and tone of its guitars. And people spend more on Gibson guitars because they have a certain tone.
For instance, Gibson does screw its necks to the body of the guitar. Instead, the neck is glued in place. This is obviously A LOT trickier to do than simply screwing a neck in place. It requires a specialized technician to do it and it takes longer than using screws. The reason Gibson does this, though, is that it creates better sustain. And players like sustain.
In addition to this, Gibson ensures all of its necks are hand-sanded and finished by a human being. This ensures each neck is unique. It also ensures that each neck is done to an established, high standard. Other brands use machines to do this. Gibson does it the old way. And it shows when you play one, although it does take A LOT longer.
And then there’s the finish. We’ve already established that Gibson uses a very expensive lacquer to finish its guitars (nitrocellulose). This type of lacquer is very tricky to work with, so a specialized craftsman is required to implement it. Gibson could switch to a cheaper method. But the use of nitrocellulose is what gives Gibson guitars that immaculate finish. This particular lacquer also ages really well, evolving the appearance of the guitar as the years pass. Without this, it just wouldn’t be a Gibson.
Electronics, Pickups & Overall Tone
Gibson has a legacy to think about, so it cannot just follow trends and change things on its guitars willy-nilly. You can get Gibson guitars with different pickup configurations, for instance, but even then, they’re all installed and hand-wound in the Gibson factory. This is done to ensure that nothing messes with the overall sound and tone of its guitars.
Where things start to get expensive, however, is that everything on a Gibson is hand-wired. From the pickups to the switches, potentiometers, and capacitors, everything is done by hand by an expert craftsman. On a cheaper guitar, made in China, cheap, unskilled labor is used. This is fine of the chief differences between, say, and Epiphone and a Gibson. And it is also one of the biggest costs of Gibson’s business.
Gibson also uses the most expensive materials and electronics it can get its hands on. All of the electronics and components that go into a Gibson guitar are also extensively tested by engineers – another large cost. Cheaper guitars are seldom tested. They’re mass-produced and pumped out of factories in China. This is why they cost so much less than a Gibson.
Different Types of Gibson Les Paul – Hyper Expensive To Affordable
OK, we’ve covered pretty much all the main reasons why Gibson’s guitars are so expensive. It all comes down to labor costs, build materials, quality control, and production methods. But when it comes to buying a Gibson guitar, what’re your options? Are they all super-expensive?
The bad news is that ALL of Gibson’s production guitars are expensive compared to other brands like Epiphone. The cheapest Gibson you can buy is a Gibson Les Paul Special Tribute – it retails for $999.
The most expensive one you can buy? It varies anywhere from $1119 for a Gibson Les Paul Studio to $2669 for a Gibson Les Paul Standard. If you go with a Custom model, you’re looking at anywhere from $4999 to $8699. Vintage model Gibson guitars can fetch anywhere from $20000 to over $100,000.
Basically, if you want a “cheap” Gibson, your best bet is to go with either a Gibson Les Paul Studio and/or Special or an SG Studio or Special. You can pick these up for less than $1000 – though not by much. You’re looking at $999.99 for one of these guitars. Even used Gibson guitars are expensive, almost the same as new models. And the reason for this is that Gibson guitars hold their value.
Are Gibson Les Paul Guitars A Good Investment?
Did you know that the US dollar has lost 95% of its value since 1945? That’s pretty crazy, right? The money in your bank account, which isn’t backed by anything physical like gold or silver, is worth less today than it was when Jimmy Hendrix played Woodstock. A lot less.
If you’ve got savings – or you have a lot of money – buying a Gibson guitar is a very good investment, especially if you can pick up a vintage model at a good price. The guitar will hold its value and, if you get your hands on a sought-after model, you could make yourself a lot of money.
But in order to accrue value, you’ll need to first find and then acquire a Les Paul from Gibson’s golden era – between 1958 and 1960. If you can find one of these Les Paul guitars knocking around, and you can buy one for less than $10,000, you’ll have yourself a solid investment that will increase in value the longer you hold on to it.
For instance, a well-preserved ’59 Les Paul with a coveted flame maple top could easily command $500,000 or more. The tricky thing is actually finding one. But from an investment perspective, buying classic and/or iconic guitars does work. It is no different from buying expensive watches, holding on to them for a decade or so, and then selling them on to another collector for a higher price.
Of course, to be successful with this kind of thing you must first have the available funds, understand how the guitar market works, know how to spot a good, classic model, and then actually acquire it – either at auction or via sites like Reverb. It ain’t easy. And it ain’t cheap. But it is an investment because it will generate money in the future.
Do new Gibson guitars hold their value? In a word, yes. If you bought a new Gibson Les Paul Standard today, played it for several years, and then decided to sell it, the guitar would retain – on average – 85% of its original value. This is outstanding whichever way you slice it; no other guitar brand – save for Fender – has this kind of value retention.
Should You Buy A Gibson Les Paul?
The whole point of this post is to explain WHY Gibson guitars are so expensive. We’re now 2000+ words deep, so I think we’ve covered off all the basics about why a Gibson Les Paul costs a lot more than an Epiphone Les Paul. The next obvious question, however, is should you go out and buy a Gibson guitar?
This will depend, largely speaking, on your level of skill, your bank balance, and whether or not you’re a professional musician. If you’re just a hobbyist player and you’re relatively young (and don’t have much cash), buying a $3000 Gibson guitar doesn’t make much sense. You’d be far better off with a $499 Epiphone SG Standard.
If you’re a professional musician or you have aspirations about becoming one, then, yes, it does make sense to INVEST in a Gibson Les Paul or a proper SG. If you want to sound professional or record music, you need a good quality guitar. Cheaper models are OK for a bit, but they don’t cut it in professional circles. This is why most professionals use Gibson, not Epiphone.
Is a Gibson essential? Hell no! You will get the same level of quality from a PRS guitar. Or a Fender. But if you’re into metal or heavier music, there is a reason why the Gibson SG and Gibson Les Paul are so popular. They just sound darker and heavier, thanks to their construction and the type of wood used. Les Paul guitars especially.
Nothing sounds quite like a Gibson Les Paul Standard or Custom. They have this depth to them, a low-end rumble that you simply cannot get with a Fender Strat or a Tele. This is why everybody from Jimmy Page to BORIS use Les Paul guitars. They use them to unleash that earth-shattering low-end, to create huge sounds. To sound HEAVY.
Decent Alternatives For (WAY) Less Money
What if you’re not a professional player, or you cannot afford a Gibson Les Paul or SG, what’re your options? For me, it has to be Epiphone. Epiphone makes amazing Les Paul and SG models. They retail for less than $600 in most cases and they look and play amazingly well.
I love the Epiphone SG Standard. For $499, I honestly don’t think you can get a better guitar for less money. The Epiphone Les Paul Prophecy is another amazing option. It retails for $899 and it runs Fishman Fluence pickups. If you want to play modern metal, the Epiphone Les Paul Prophecy is a near-perfect option for aspiring guitarists that are pursuing a career in music.
With its Fishman Fluence humbuckers, iconic design, and amazing specs and components, the Epiphone Les Paul Prophecy is easily the best Gibson Les Paul on the market right now. In fact, I think I’d still take one of these over a proper Gibson Les Paul. It is that good…
Or, if you want something a little different, go with the PRS SE Standard 24 – it is a beautiful guitar that plays like a dream. It costs just over $500 and is perhaps one of the best guitars on the market at this price point. And it’s a PRS guitar too, so it is built to excruciatingly exact standards by PRS’ craftsman. I own one of these and it is one of my most-played guitars.
RichardRichard has been playing guitar for over a decade and is a huge fan of metal, doom, sludge, and rock music in general – though mostly metal. Having played in bands and worked in studios since the early 2000s, Richard is a massive music production geek, a fan of minimalist recording techniques, and he really likes old-school guitars.
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