The Gibson Les Paul is not just for Guitarists
When I first spied a Les Paul bass guitar it was in a Gibson guitar ad at the back of some guitar magazine in the early ’90s. Aerosmith had just released their Get a Grip disc and were all over the airwaves (and the Gibson guitar ad) and I was a wet-behind-the-ears bassist who valued the looks of an instrument more than the tone and playability (little did I know back then). While I had noticed many gorgeous Les Paul guitars with their carved maple tops, up until then I had never seen a Les Paul electric bass – I had to count the number of strings (yep – 4!) just to make sure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. There it was, an honest-to-gosh Gibson Les Paul electric bass in the hands of Tom Hamilton.
At the time I detested the look of the Fender Precision and Jazz basses, I was mainly interested in basses that were black and/or pointy. However, the curves of the Les Paul bass appealed to me and even I was forced to take notice. Even though I haven’t had the chance to even play one of these basses, I still think that they’re cool today – even if playing one may get you momentarily mistaken as a guitar player.
Les Paul Bass Pros and Cons
While the bass gets high praise for its construction, tone and looks it also gets a bad rap for not being as flexible in the tone departments as other famous *cough jazz* two pickup basses. The solid body versions are also known for being quite heavy.
Les Paul Bass History
The Les Paul Bass is the electric bass version of the famous guitar made by the Gibson guitar company. It is named after the guitarist/inventor Les Paul (Born Lester William Polsfuss and recently passed away in August ’09) who designed the first solid body electric guitar.
The Les Paul body style is a classic and instantly recognizable with a single cutaway; it’s to the electric guitar what the Fender Precision bass is to the bass world. For this reason, and the fact that the Gibson Les Paul bass guitar has been discontinued repeatedly over the years – the body style remains synonymous with the electric guitar and not bass.
It was first released in 1969 with a mahogany body and set mahogany neck with a short-scale like the EB0 and EB3 Gibson basses.
In 1973 a hollow body version was created and given the name the Les Paul Signature bass even though it looked much different than the original. Aside from being hollow, the other differences in this version was the long scale (34.5″) and double cutaways on the body. Both the Les Paul signature bass and the Les Paul Triumph bass ceased production in 1979.
In the 1990’s, Gibson re-introduced the Les Paul to the bass world with a vengeance. These were long scale basses with the single cutaway, bartolini pickups (instead of the low impedance pickups from the past) and the gorgeous tops that are common with Les Paul guitars. Around this time artists such as Areosmith’s Tom Hamilton and Meshell Ndegeocello appeared with the Gibson Les Paul bass in TV and in endorsement advertisements in various guitar magazines.
Gibson also went out on a limb and introduced the Gibson Les Paul 5 string bass guitar at the same time. These basses were made with a flamed maple top, mahogany neck and body, 20 fret ebony fingerboard with block position markers and black hardware.
The latest release took place in 1997 with the Gibson Les Paul standard bass. Again it featured a mahogany body with a maple top and a mahogany neck, but with a rosewood fretboard and two Gibson Thunderbird ceramic pickups. Another difference is that this model featured a chambered rather than a solid body which is a nod back to the Les Paul signature bass from the 1970s. Alas, even this model has since been discontinued as of 2006.
Les Paul Bass Features
Other than body shape, each of the Les Paul bass guitars had their own distinct sound due to the many different variables of each model noted above. The first Les Paul basses featured low impedance passive pickups while the 1990’s models featured bartolini active electronics. Most of the Les Pauls had mahogany bodies and necks but featured either ebony or rosewood fingerboards and also had either short scale or long scale necks.
Due to the fact that the Les Paul bass has been discontinued several times, they are in short supply and remain a favorite among bassists who want a classic rock n roll style bass guitar but don’t want to go the Fender route. You can find many of the 1990s and newer models on Ebay.
Les Paul Bass Endorsers
The Les Paul bass has been spotted in the hands of Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton (from the aforementioned Gibson guitar ad as well as a short scene in Wayne’s World 2) as well as Meshell Ndegeocello (pictured below).
Gibson basses are made in the USA, so they are quite expensive instruments to begin with but are known for being well made and for sounding great. Used Les Paul basses in good shape retain their value since the supply is limited. Don’t be surprised to see Ebay auctions for $1,500 US or so for one of these basses that is in excellent condition.
For those that love the look but not the price, don’t despair – the Gibson budget line of instruments offers the Epiphone Les Paul Special bass guitar. It’s listed at $499 MRSP, comes in jet black, a 22 fret rosewood fingerboard and a mahogany body; the Epiphone Les Paul bass gives you all that classic style at a fraction of the price.
If you’re a fan of retro-looking basses but the Fender look just isn’t your thing, the Gibson Les Paul bass might be just the axe that you’ve been looking for.