Epiphone Les Paul SL

$99 street, epiphone.com

I remember when Epiphone announced this model at NAMM last year. The moment I heard the ridiculous price I wanted one—even though I damn well didn’t need another guitar for literally any reason. The pickguard lines echo ’60s Gibson Melody Makers, and the colors—which range from the black we chose here to a couple of bursts and a few candy-like pastels—just drew me in. Somehow, though, I didn’t get a chance to play one until our project guitar arrived on my doorstep.

Initial Inspection
At the paltry sum of $99, the Epiphone Les Paul SL is far and away the least expensive guitar of our group, and it wears that price point on its sleeve. It’s rudimentary and uncomplicated, neither refined nor streamlined. And, to be honest, playing an unmodified specimen can conjure conflicting feelings: At times it’s pleasant and enjoyable … at others it’s uninspiring, even a little confusing.

But who are we kidding here? No reasonable person would expect a flaw-free experience at this price point, so minor finish issues and thin-sounding pickups shouldn’t surprise us. Given its dimensions and pedigree, it’s no surprise that the poplar-bodied instrument is light, but to some it might even feel unsettlingly so. The mere presence of tuners seems to throw off its balance when worn on a strap, and in some ways the SL makes one wonder whether, long-term, it will handle the rigors of guitar life.

Considering all that, the question became: Can the SL be elevated by a few thoughtful alterations? I firmly believe any guitar can be made to play and sound better, so from this point on I’ll be treating the Epi the same way Ed McMahon treated daytime TV viewers in the 1980s: Little friend, you may already be a winner.

I’ll be swapping out the nut, electronics, pickups, pickguard, and hardware. And, since the fret ends were jagged enough to do some minor skin damage while unboxing the guitar—not to worry, I didn’t bleed on it—I put fretwork on the mod list as well.

Photo 14 — To improve the Les Paul SL’s tuning stability, I used a drill press to carefully widen the existing tuner holes to accommodate a set of smoother-operating TonePros machines.

As we’ve discussed, lower-quality electrical components are one way manufacturers often cut costs on more affordable instruments. On a guitar as inexpensive as the Epi SL, hardware is definitely going to come into that picture, too. It was soon apparent that its tuners just aren’t worth salvaging, so I installed a set of white-button TonePros for a visual and functional upgrade. Because these tuners have a stabilizing lip surrounding the tuner shaft, I had to remove some material around the existing (unevenly drilled) tuner holes to make room. We used a drill press for a clean look, but you can get away with some careful reverse drilling (Photo 14).

As previously hinted at, fretwork was the SL’s Achilles’ heel. Notes were choked off in some playing positions, especially at the second fret. Using a Stew Mac Fret Rocker, I was able to pinpoint a number of frets that weren’t seated properly. Pressing them back into their slots with an arbor was the only option—not exactly a job for a first-time modder, but nevertheless it was essential for our guitar. During this process, I was rather surprised to note that the neck wood (which is listed as being mahogany on the company’s website) was soft enough that slight to moderate pressure left a small depression in it.

Photo 15 — The underside of the Les Paul SL’s pickguard, prior to removing the stock pickups and electronics.

Perhaps the most valuable upgrade––literally and figuratively––was the pickups. The stock single-coils sounded thin and lacked punch, so I chose pickups from the opposite end of the spectrum: Lollar MelodyMaker P-90s. The SL’s pickguard had to be tailored to fit them—a job that can be done easily with a rotary tool like a Dremel—but I used a pin router and a makeshift jig that my friend Dan whipped up from scrap wood and tape (Photos 15 and 16).

Photo 16 — To expand the pickup routes in the SL’s pickguard to accommodate our new Lollar MelodyMakers, I used a pin router and a jig we made out of scrap wood and tape.

For the new wiring harness, I opted for a ’50s-style Gibson approach: two 500k pots, a .022 µF capacitor, and one of Emerson’s lovely treble-bleed networks to preserve high end with volume roll-off.

As a bonus, I threw in a spare kill switch that my tech friend Ed Dualetta gifted me years ago, which I thought might be fun. It’s wired between the volume pot and output jack, and sends the signal to ground when the button is pressed.