By the mid ‘eighties I’d seen and heard a heck of a lot of Les Pauls – mostly on the local live music scene, and probably as many copies as genuine Gibsons. I don’t remember being greatly impressed by any of them, and indeed, when the guitarist in one of my favourite local bands ‘upgraded’ from a fairly inexpensive Aria to a Gibson LP in ‘83, I was stunned by the fact that he actually sounded significantly worse. Even the professional bands I’d seen using Les Pauls had failed to produce anything sonically spectacular.
So as my guitar buying days tentatively commenced, I quickly decided that I wouldn’t be having anything to do with Les Pauls. Not that I could have afforded a Gibson anyway, but they seemed massively overrated to me… Until the evening of 21st April 1986, when I went along to The Portland Club in Edgbaston, Birmingham (it was on Icknield Port Road – No. 100), to see Big Audio Dynamite. Supporting BAD were a band called Chiefs of Relief – a super-cool groove-orientated rock band featuring former Sex Pistol Paul Cook on drums, and fronted by the late Matt Ashman, previously well known as the guitarist with Bow Wow Wow. Matt took to the stage wielding (and I do mean wielding) a black Gibson Les Paul Pro Deluxe, which sounded phenomenal and produced the best rock guitar sound I’d heard in a live situation. Within seconds, I’d finally got what the big deal was with Gibson Les Pauls. You can see and hear Matt playing his black LP Pro Deluxe (with a Bigsby) in this old, 1980s Chiefs of Relief video…
And it’s the Gibson Les Paul Pro Deluxe I want to look at in this article. The original Les Paul Deluxe (not the Pro Deluxe) was actually born in 1969, on the back of the Les Paul revival. After Gibson stopped making the classic single cutaway Les Pauls at the dawn of the ‘60s and replaced them with the SGs, increasing pressure fell on the company to re-introduce the 1950s sustain machines. Finally, Gibson succumbed to the hankerings of the market, and a humbucker-fitted LP Custom was re-launched in mid 1968 alongside a single coil fitted Gold Top, similar to the mid ‘50s Standards.
Because of a need to use up surpluses of mini humbuckers from the Epiphone wing of Gibson, the Gold Top was amended in ’69 to incorporate the Epiphone pickups. The Gold Top's LP Standard type headstock was also altered to follow the grander shape of the LP Custom version, but left without the binding and inlays found on the Custom. This new, mini himbucker version of the guitar was branded the Les Paul Deluxe. In truth, there was nothing particularly deluxe about it – it wasn’t even as good as the old Standards. But with its slightly more ‘regal’ headstock shape, the LP Deluxe was just about able to put a positive spin on the concept of using up spare parts. The "Gold Top only" finish restriction subsequently broadened to include other colours.
The Les Paul Pro Deluxe eventually appeared in 1976, upgrading the Deluxe’s mini humbuckers to single coil P90s (and that was an upgrade, despite the rather converse drawback of added single coil background noise), and replacing the rosewood fingerboard with a sexier ebony version. Other than that, the Deluxe and the Pro Deluxe were basically the same. The Pro Deluxe model ran in production until 1982, and I’m looking at an Ebony (black) example from the last year of production in this particular retrospective.
In 1982, the Pro Deluxe’s UK retail price was £789. It was a weighty piece with a maple-topped mahogany body, three-piece maple neck, ebony fingerboard, Les Paul Standard style pearl block markers, two P90s, that unbound Custom-type headstock with Grover machineheads, and a set of gold Gibson speed knobs. A little ‘Pro’ designation on the truss rod cover would unmistakably identify the model on the retailers’ racks. Whilst on paper the LP Pro Deluxe didn’t jump out and whack you in the face, once someone put one into your hands it was a different story. Especially the black ones, which I think are the most attractive.
Any Gibson Les Paul feels like a serious piece of gear, but the Pro Deluxes backed that up with a truly classic sound and responsiveness. What many Les Paul owners will know very well is that the guitars can be unresponsive and reluctant to produce adequate definition. Particularly after Gibson started tinkering with the output and tone of the humbuckers, calibrating pickup sets, etc, Les Pauls became a minefield ‘off the peg’. But you know where you are with a Pro Deluxe. Those P90 single coils have a perfect balance of warmth and bite, and coupled with the guitar’s maple top, and the ebony fingerboard, you get ‘balls’ in abundance, but there’s no shortage of definition. You can play really heavy rock riffs and screaming solos all day, but equally, you can play percussive blues lead lines, jazz on the neck pickup, and some surprisingly modern ‘alternative’ styles with a clean tone just running into mild overdrive.
This will probably sound ridiculous, given that P90s are single coils, but I’ve felt for many years that P90-equipped Les Pauls come much closer to the fantastic LP Standard PAF sound of the late ‘50s than some of the 1980s and 1990s models fitted with calibrated humbuckers. P90s are undeniably noisy pickups, but their tone really does suit a Les Paul better than higher output twin coil units. In my view, short of going back to the 1950s, the very early ‘60s, or the P90 Gold Tops of 1968, it would be difficult to find a more enticing blend of woods, hardware and maturity than that found on the Les Paul Pro Deluxes of 1976 to 1982. They’re not cheap on the secondhand/vintage market, but at present, from what I’ve seen, they’re not that expensive either given the kind of tone, feel and versatility they offer.
Okay, so they’re Les Pauls – not the most versatile guitars in the world, and not the fastest players. But within their own family, they’re a great deal closer to the ultimate than I think the world at large has yet realised.