By Brian Scherzer
I count myself among the many who can’t afford a real Les Paul from the early years of their production. While not all vintage LPs have that “magic tone”, there is no escaping the allure that many players have for this model. However, many of us found that buying a new Les Paul often did not result in either the feel or sound of the vintage guitars we grew up listening to in the hands of notables like Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, early Jeff Beck, and far too many more to name.
Gibson began making headway in the quest to recapture the vibe of those early LPs via their Historic reissues, while more and more luthiers climbed onto the bandwagon with models that were touted to match up well with what is typically described as the vintage Les Paul sound. Prices of the instruments continued to rise, both the vintage instruments and the newer versions that were meant to come as close as possible to them. However, as any experienced luthier knows, natural aging is very difficult to reproduce with wood or electronics. Something musically miraculous can happen to an instrument over time that can make a good guitar into an incredible guitar. The wood resins continue to dry out, the nitro finish hardens and the various pieces of wood that make up the guitar begin to vibrate together more and more as the instrument is played. Lovers of acoustic instruments like violins, cellos and double basses know this process well and call it “opening up”. Some of the luthiers who have made their business by trying to replicate the magic of natural aging have tried various processes, including using truly old wood. Somewhere along the line, a number of players started to wonder if Gibson could still compete with the boutique builders.
The evolution of the Gibson Les Paul Historics includes use of longer neck tenons, various pickup windings and materials, different wiring and capacitors, and returning to the nitro finishes that were said to be part of the mix of ingredients that were responsible for the tone we seek as players. Gibson has certainly had improvements in their Historic line. I have had the privilege to try out a number of the Historic reissues and felt that the company was getting closer to nirvana……but not quite there. That was until I ventured over to Wildwood Guitars in Louisville, Colorado on April 26th.
Wildwood Guitars and I are no strangers to each other. Living less than an hour away, I have taken advantage of the proximity to test drive and, sometimes, to buy an instrument that stood out from the rest. I happened to be browsing their website, looked at their Gibsons and noticed that a new category had been added, “Historic Wildwood Spec Les Pauls”. Being a sucker for the evolution of the LP, I called the store and was intrigued enough by the description of the new model to head there the next day to see if these instruments were a notch above the Historics I had tried. If you are the impatient sort and want to know the results now, the simple answer is that these guitars are the best new Les Pauls I have tried out!
Normally, I have to play and listen to an instrument for a while before being able to determine whether it is coming home with me. One can often tell in the first few strums whether the instrument is resonant and acoustically loud, but it takes time to get a good sense of the feel of the instrument and what it can do in the various pickup positions through an amp before I feel that I “know” the instrument. This was the fastest I have ever made a decision on when buying a guitar. It had a nice acoustic volume and vibrated in my hands in a manner that let me know quickly that this was going to be fun.
Plugging it into the clean channel of an amp, I was immediately struck by the clarity and sustain of notes and chords. There was a certain richness of tone that was richer than most of the LPs I have tried out, especially in the neck and combined pickup positions. The bottom was deep, but tight, without the bloat that you often get with a lesser guitar. I strummed a chord and counted the seconds before the last sounds of the chord died out. It took over 20 seconds! Yet, the real test for me was going to be the bridge pickup sound. I was tired years ago of the ice pick sound one often finds on even higher-priced guitars. There was bite to the notes coming out of that bridge pickup, but it never made me wince or wish for some change to the bridge pickup. Winner!
It wasn’t until I played the guitar at home through MY amp and in MY room that I feel I got a full sense of what this guitar can do. The neck is on the larger side, which is great for my left hand not tiring as easily. The sense of the entire guitar resonating only increased as I played the instrument. The action was superb from the start and I found myself gliding along the fretboard with greater clarity of notes than is typical for me as I adjust to a new guitar. Best of all, that sustain I heard at the store when playing clean intensified when adding an overdrive pedal in front of the amp. Harmonic overtones swirled around the fundamental notes, and those notes stayed “alive” for as long as I wanted them to be there. Even overdriven, the notes were exceptionally clear and did not fall into a mush of sound in the neck pickup position. While it isn’t easy for me to play like Billy Gibbons or any of my favorite guitarists, I had very little trouble replicating their sound…….which is rare for me to accomplish!
So what goes into these “Wildwood Specs” that makes them sound and feel different from the traditional Historic reissues? Steve Mesple, owner of Wildwood Guitars, points to the specially wound pickups that they asked Gibson to do (underwound in a different pattern), the hand-selected tonewoods that go into this model, and the Tone Pros that are anchored deeper into the body than the standard bridge. Few dealers have the ability to get Gibson to move into new tinkering territory, but Steve was able to get the folks in the Custom Shop to try out his suggestions and the end result is an LP that comes closer, in my opinion, to the sound I seek from a Les Paul than any previous Historic. I’d like to think that my new Les Paul is the “best of” from that run, but these guitars appear to be more consistent from instrument to instrument than I thought possible. There were no “dogs” to run through to find “the good one”.
I won’t try to pretend that I understand why some guitars stand out from the rest. I simply know a good guitar when I get a chance to play one. These aren’t “good” guitars; they are great guitars, regardless of whatever voodoo we try to assign to explain why they sound that way. I’m not talking about a small improvement that you have to strain to hear, or which you end up wondering if it is a placebo effect. There is a very audible difference in the sound, and one that I find comes very, very close to what I have heard better vintage Les Pauls to sound like. Fit and finish are superb. My LP weighed in at 8.60 pounds and is non-weight relieved. The feel of the instrument in my hands is perfect. In fact, I can’t improve on or disagree with any of the descriptors that Wildwood has of these guitars on their website:
“These incredible creations feature hand selected hardwoods, Tone Pros long studs and anchors, and Special Designed Gibson Custom Bucker pickups wound to Wildwood spec.”
“The long anchors transfer more resonance and sustain and a piano-like fundamental; a bigger, throatier, and more masculine singing voice; The high end is more balanced, open and present without any of the harsher, spiky transients.”
“The Special design pickups offer unparalleled touch sensitivity and response, articulation with gorgeous bloom, compression and bounce, and are absolutely dripping with overtones and harmonics. We love these pickups!!”
It is rare for me to find any instrument that I’m willing to rave about. Something tells me that these Wildwood special edition Historic Les Pauls will soon put to rest the notion that you can’t get a true vintage sound out of a new LP. They are that good! I paid the ultimate reviewer's compliment to the instrument by buying it.