Oh, we have had some Les Pauls over the past twenty years and you have read about them all right here. Goldtops, bursts, a magic black, some with big necks, some not as big, some were featherweights, others heavier, and they all sounded as different as they played and appeared. And then there were the six ’59 bursts we played in a single session. Depending on how you look at things this could be encouraging or depressing… Well, it’s a fact, every guitar is different, and we received one yesterday that is uniquely fine, among the best yet.
Abilene Sunset indeed… Lee Roy’s second signature Les Paul conjures the visual essence of all the authentic old bursts we have beheld and played in the past. Yeah, they were all uniquely varied in appearance with different degrees of flamey figure in the tops and equally varied hues of golden amber, brown and red merging to create the most coveted electric guitar ever made. With roughly 1400 built from ‘58 – ‘60, the sunburst Les Paul was not a big hit with guitar players, in fact, those 1400 guitars represented less than 3% of Gibson’s total production during those years. The fact that the bursts only lasted three years further underscores the point that in 1959 guitar players weren’t exactly lining up for Les Pauls. And for that reason, were you to find a ‘59 Les Paul in the late ‘60s you probably could have bought it for $300, just like Billy F Gibbons…
Gibson lost their way moving into the ‘70s, and no serious effort was made to accurately resurrect the ‘59 burst until the late 1990’s, and it wasn’t until the emergence of the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville that Tom Murphy and the crew in Nashville succeeded in bringing the Sunburst Les Paul back to its former glory. And they did just that. In the past twenty years we have bought over twenty Les Pauls to play and review, most of them Custom Shop models. They were all good, yet different, just like the originals. A few were way down in the low eight -pound range, lighter than usual, but the lightest ones didn’t necessarily sound the best. Some players seem to go orgasmic over super light solid body guitars… well, mindlessly latching on to that idea can be fool’s gold. Whenever we play one of these guitars for the first time we don’t plug them in, but strum unplugged and note the degree to which the neck and body resonate, and for how long the good vibrations persist. That tells us what we want to know. When a guitar sustains well, you can hear it through an amp. The harmonic overtones are stronger with a long decay, and sustain is intense. You can hear the way the notes bloom with a percussive response to pick attack, and the pickups transmit what the guitar is giving you. Every guitar is different— it’s what makes them so fascinating, and the more guitars you can play the better your chances of finding a great one, although sometimes we just get a sneaky feeling about a guitar that might be 1200 miles away and sight unseen, we just have to have it. You might be surprised by how well that strategy has worked for us.
So here we sit with Lee Roy’s Abilene Sunset, and it clearly possesses all of the visual and sonic qualities we have chased in these guitars for the past twenty years. It is also stunning in appearance. The golden burst turns to a red sunset in the upper bouts, with flame that shifts from subtle to deeply intense depending on the angle from which it’s viewed. The craftsmanship is flawless, and being new off the line, it reeks of that fresh caramel-nitro aroma. This is also the first guitar we have played built under the new management at Gibson, and it is unerringly consistent with the bursts we acquired throughout the past decade.
The deep red mahogany neck and back nearly match the red in the burst with cream binding, pickup rings and pickguard. At 8 lbs. 11 ounces the weight is right, fit and finish are exceptional, and the fret work is what you would expect from a $7,000 guitar. What is really most endearing however is the neck, and guitars Lee Roy’s… Abilene Sunset Les Paul different necks can often present a make-or-break proposition. The neck on the Abilene is a fairly massive, rounded C shape with big shoulders and uniform girth from the nut to the 14th fret. It fills your hand yet chords have an easy feel and it is reassuring for solos. It also vibrates with an intensity that permeates the entire guitar. It’s alive. What more could you want from a guitar? It is also worth noting that Lee Roy worked with Gibson to develop a modified pickup rout that is shallower, which allows a snug fit inside the mahogany body, increasing resonant sustain. The cutaway is modified with a slight fall away at the back edge to better accommodate your hand when playing at the higher frets, and you’ll find paper-in-oil tone caps and vintage spec pots in the Sunset as well.
The pickups are a ’57 Classic neck and overwound Classic Plus in the bridge reading 7.91K and 8.15K. The Plus is a little gritty, but certainly passable. The trebly harmonics ring like a church bell, tinselly and bright, beckoning rich chords that inspire great songs. Our first pass on the bridge pickup of the Sunset lasted a half an hour. Lead lines have lots of bite, but it isn’t a sharp, hurtful tone… Penetrating is more like it. The neck pickup is woody and bold, perhaps lacking some of the treble definition we like on the top three strings in a great neck humbucker, but such is the price you pay for having heard those magical old PAFs. The in-between setting with both pickups engaged is beautifully detailed, weighty yet bright. You would use it, even if you haven’t in the past. This guitar is alive with tone, with persistent sustain and an animated vocal quality that defines a great Les Paul. The Abilene Sunset is simply as good as an electric guitar is ever gonna get. Quest forth…TQ