I Don’t Play Les Pauls Anymore, and Here’s Why

Heavy, uncomfortable, and awkward are all words I’d use to describe Gibson’s most iconic guitar. Learn why I don’t play Les Pauls anymore, and find out what I use as an alternative.

I know it probably sounds sacrilegious, but I don’t play Les Pauls anymore. “What?!” I hear some of you saying. “But the Les Paul is iconic! Every guitar player should have one!” Here’s the thing: the longer I play, the less concerned I am with owning “iconic” guitars popularized by my heroes. Playability and personal preference matter far more to me these days.

Understanding Why We’re Drawn to “Iconic” Guitars

For decades upon decades, guitar manufacturers have relied upon famous guitarists to sell their products. How many kids looked at Kurt Cobain and wanted a Fender Mustang, I wonder? How many looked at Angus Young and wanted a Gibson SG?

We often feel compelled (when we’re young, particularly) to play what our idols play. A big part of that comes, I think, from the hope that if we play our heroes’ preferred guitars, we’ll play like them, too. Another part of it arises, quite possibly, from the mistaken belief that if we don’t use the same guitars our idols used, things won’t “sound right” when we cover their songs.

I vaguely remember the first time I realized I wanted a Gibson Les Paul. It was back in 2001, shortly after I’d seen this performance by The Edge:

U2 – Until The End Of The World (Boston Live 2001)

It reminds me of an old family snapshot, circa 2002. I’m wearing a numbered t-shirt, there’s a capo on the third fret of my guitar, I’m muting the low E string … Yes, I was imagining I was The Edge playing the intro to “Until the End of the World,” desperately wishing I had a ’50s style Les Paul Gold Top in addition to my Cort S400.

Les Pauls Don’t Work for Me, Unfortunately

The dream came true for me a little over a decade later when I bought my first Les Paul. It wasn’t a Gibson, mind you, but it was close enough: an Epiphone Les Paul Standard finished in Metallic Gold that looked at least somewhat like The Edge’s beautiful Gold Top.

The finish wasn’t in stock locally, so I ended up ordering the guitar online. It was my first lesson in the harsh reality that you really have to play a few Les Pauls before you purchase one, as they aren’t for everyone, and you won’t know where you stand until you’ve played a few.

After the honeymoon period wore off, I started noticing a few things about the guitar’s design that I found off-putting:

They Feel Imbalanced While Sitting Down

If you play a Les Paul while seated, you’ll probably notice that the guitar is quite bottom heavy and feels as though it will tip over and slide off your leg if you stop holding the neck for just one second. If you then sit down with a Stratocaster, a Telecaster, or even an Explorer, this problem goes away immediately. That’s because those guitars, unlike the Les Paul, are perfectly balanced when you’re sitting down. You can let go of the neck and have those guitars rest safely on your thigh, seldom in any danger of hitting the ground.

Some people don’t mind the bottom-heavy nature of the Les Paul design, but it annoys me a fair bit — especially when I’m recording and need to take my hands off the neck for a few seconds to use my keyboard. I don’t like wearing a strap while sitting down, as they tend to fall off and get in the way, but that’s my only option while seated and recording with a Les Paul.

They Feel Uncomfortable While Sitting Down

In addition to being bottom heavy, Les Pauls have a tendency to dig painfully into your ribs and thigh when you sit down to play them. That’s because they lack the smooth contours and belly cuts of far more ergonomic guitar designs like the Stratocaster or SG. The carve of the Les Paul’s lower horn is also far too narrow, which makes the guitar sit rather awkwardly on your thigh.

They Feel Too Heavy While Standing Up

If sitting down is out, standing up to play with Les Pauls is your only other option. People joke about Les Pauls being “boat anchors,” but behind all hyperbolic statements is a nugget of truth. I’ve heard about mythical Les Pauls that weigh in at eight pounds or less. Those are rarities, though. My first Les Paul weighed just over ten pounds, and my second weighed around nine and a half.

I’ve “run the racks” many a time in search of a lighter Les Paul, and every one I’ve ever picked up has felt ridiculously heavy. Ten pound guitars were doable in my 20s, but I’m creeping closer to 40 now and have a physically demanding job. Standing up for hours at a time on my days off with a boat anchor slung around my shoulders just isn’t in the cards for me anymore, especially not with chronic work-related back and shoulder pain. I’ve tried wide straps, I’ve tried padded straps, I’ve tried shortening my straps, and it’s no use: Les Pauls still feel too heavy to me.

Upper Fret Access is Too Limited

Some solos are simply unplayable on Les Pauls, and that’s because their upper fret access isn’t great compared to other guitar designs. The heel gets in the way on all but a few variations of the standard Les Paul, like the Les Paul Axcess and Les Paul Modern. The fact that the Axcess / Modern heel design is not standard issue on all non-historic reissue Les Pauls is a bit of a head scratcher to me.

Embracing What Does Work

Don’t get me wrong, Les Pauls are great guitars. They sound great, they look phenomenal, and they just ooze rock ‘n’ roll. Millions of guitarists have loved them since 1952 for good reason. They aren’t for everyone, though, and that’s okay.

Part of maturing as a guitarist is realizing that you don’t have to play an uncomfortable guitar if you don’t want to, just because it’s an iconic guitar that several of your idols play. It makes a lot more sense to play what works for you, not what works for someone else.

One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that there are two guitar designs in particular that feel tailor-made for me: the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Explorer.

I don't play Les Pauls anymore because Gibson Explorers sound just as good, and feel way better.
My pride and joy: my 2019 Gibson Explorer.

Explorers, in particular, are not that much different from Les Pauls, sonically speaking. Les Pauls sound a little darker to me overall, but that’s something that can be EQ’ed in with a pedal or a DAW plugin if need be. The guitars obviously look nothing alike, but the tone is what matters the most. I’ve tried out SGs, Flying Vs, ES-335s, and Firebirds, and it’s no contest: Explorers sound more like Les Pauls than any other Gibson design.

Explorers also have none of the Les Paul quirks that I find off-putting. Despite being all angles, the Explorer is perfectly balanced, whether sitting down or standing up. They tend to be lighter than Les Pauls on average (mine is a manageable eight pounds on the dot). They have excellent upper fret access. And they’re frickin’ Explorers, the most interesting guitar design ever Gibson released, in my opinion.

Conclusion

I sold my last Les Paul in 2022. I’d been trying to make them work for me for over a decade at that point, and it just wasn’t happening. Unless Gibson suddenly releases a light, contoured, well-balanced Les Paul in a finish I really like (or re-issues the Les Paul Custom Lite), I’ll likely never own another one. I started playing Explorers when I was a teenager because of The Edge, but I keep playing them because they work well for me and are an excellent Les Paul substitute.

Long story short, my Explorer is now my go-to when I’m covering songs originally recorded with a Les Paul. I’m sure I’ll get some grief about it on YouTube, but I know myself that the tonal differences between Explorers and Les Pauls are so minor as to be completely negligible. The benefits I personally gain by ditching a guitar design that doesn’t work for me far outweigh those negligible differences in tone.


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

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